Tom Friedman: 'Sputnik moment' intentionally exaggerated

Months before President Obama mentioned 'Sputnik moment' in his State of the Union address, the New York Times columnist said the idea was an intentional exaggeration.

By , Staff writer

Are American leaders purposely overplaying the Chinese competitive threat with references to Sputnik?

President Obama said in his State of the Union address that the country faces a “Sputnik moment,” one that calls for a major research investment in next generation technologies. Sputnik evokes a superpower rivalry, one in which America is purportedly in danger of losing due to falling education standards and research focus.

But as STRATFOR analyst Peter Zeihan points out in this video, Sputnik was actually a major overreaction.

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“Let's be honest. Sputnik was a beeping aluminum grapefruit. Yes, the Soviets were able to get an artificial satellite in orbit before the Americans. But at the time, the Americans were ahead in metallurgy, were ahead chemistry, were at electronics; the Russians were simply able to launch something into orbit sooner. As a result, the Americans panicked.”

The overreaction was beneficial to the country in the long-term, but it was built on a hyped threat.

Another thought leader who uses the language of Sputnik is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, one of the chief prophets of globalization and author of "The World is Flat." In an on-the-record talk with journalists at the New Delhi foreign correspondents club late last year, Mr. Friedman admitted candidly that he is trying to scare Americans about rising China and India – to get his countrymen to prepare better for global competition.

“I was just in China last month and my Chinese friends say to me, ‘Tom, you exaggerate us,' " said Friedman. “To which I say, ‘Guilty as charged, baby. You’re my Sputnik, man. I want you up there because [in] my country, I got half of Americans [to] think you’re just a shooting star, and you’re not a shooting star.' "

A journalist admitting he distorts the truth raises ethical concerns, but when a president latches on to the same language, the effort can be decidedly more risky.

“What Obama is attempting to do is remake that ‘Sputnik moment’ in some sort of a controlled manner. Now, this is a difficult challenge," notes Mr. Zeihan.

“To do that, he has to do one of two things. First, he has to spend a lot of money, probably in the trillions, on industrial regeneration in education. In an era where budget cuts are the word of the day, that is going to be problematic at best. Number two, he has to really get the fear going and in the case of economic competition, the likely target of any state-generated fears is going to have to be the Chinese government. At present, the Obama administration has not indicated that it is willing to play hardball on trade issues, and until it does that, or something similar that captures the American capacity for fear and overreaction, it's difficult to see how this strategy will work. But the Obama administration has clearly indicated what it wants to do; the question is how it is going to do it.”

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