Monday, July 25, 2022

Sputnik moment isn’t what it used to be

The first one in 1957 spurred the US on to technological greatness; now, China’s progress spurs stagnation and indolence First posted in Asia Times. When China successfully tested a hypersonic weapon system in October 2021, General Mark A Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this was very close to a “Sputnik moment.” The first Sputnik moment took place on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union surprised Washington by sending aloft the world’s first man-made satellite, called Sputnik 1. All of a sudden, the heretofore assumed technological superiority that Americans thought they had over the Soviets vanished overnight. Public panic fueled by fear and loathing became a national crisis. For the rest of that October, The New York Times talked about the Soviet satellite, on average, in 11 articles every day. The US under president Dwight Eisenhower responded promptly to the Sputnik moment. He ordered the formation of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in February 1958 to develop emerging technologies for the military. In July, he signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act to create NASA. Response to Sputnik challenge Congress quickly followed by passing the National Defense Education Act to pour billions of dollars into the American education system and raise the quality and quantity of university graduates in science, mathematics and engineering. By the time the USSR sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961, the US was ready for the space race and set putting man on the moon as the goal. The culmination was the worldwide televised moon landing of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin from Apollo 11 in July 1969. DARPA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration generated many noteworthy technological breakthroughs, and many of those were spun off into civilian uses. Some directly or indirectly became home-run investments that nurtured an emerging venture-capital industry. The budget appropriations for the National Science Foundation created by Congress in 1950 were boosted every year to encourage scientific research in academia and research institutes. The 1970s were undoubtedly the golden decade for America. Then-president Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, which later led to normalization of relations between the two countries. The endless war ended in Vietnam. America led in virtually every field of science and technology. The fruit orchards south of San Francisco became the now famous Silicon Valley. The US claimed ownership of most of the top universities in the world. International students all over the world aspire to do postgraduate studies in America. A flood of the best and brightest from China began in the 1990s. US won the rivalry over Soviet Union America had risen to the challenge of the Sputnik moment, and it was easy to be a proud American. The American people celebrated the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and looked forward to a forthcoming “peace dividend” with enthusiasm and anticipation. Tragically, the dividend never materialized. Instead, the draft of the Wolfowitz Doctrine in 1992 became the guiding framework for future White House administrations. Paul Wolfowitz, undersecretary of defense at the time, was the principal author of the doctrine. As summarized by the documentary program Frontline, the essential points of the doctrine were: The No 1 objective of the US post-Cold War strategy is to prevent the emergence of a rival superpower. Another major objective is to safeguard US interests and promote American values. If necessary, the United States must be prepared to take unilateral action. The legacy of this doctrine has been America’s unilateral action in Iraq, Libya and many other less publicized overthrows or interference of regimes not to US liking. The price was the loss of millions of innocent lives. “Safeguard our interests and promote American values” are invariably part of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remarks supporting his justification for the threat of and actual unilateral action. China became the next designated adversary The doctrine needed a rival to warrant actions to “prevent emergence.” The US branded China as its next threat. To justify the American position, it declared a unilateral trade war and accused China of massive intellectual-property theft. And the US increased its military surveillance off the coast of China and justified increasing its naval presence in the South China Sea as based on “freedom of navigation.” A litany of US provocations succeeded in getting China to respond. One result was the hypersonic weapon system. But this was hardly a Sputnik moment. General Milley’s comment was meant to motivate increase budget allocation for weapon development. However, Washington and the mainstream media seem oblivious that the deliberate provocations have created a formidable opponent. Since the US declared China as an adversary, it has surpassed the US in many technical fields. One response was to deny China access to advanced semiconductor manufacturing technology in order to kneecap its semiconductor industry and cripple its manufacturing that depends on advanced chips. But as David Goldman observed in a recent Asia Times article, “The Biden administration’s belated attempt to suppress China’s semiconductor industry appears to have backfired. China has found workaround technologies that bypass the aging American IP that Washington has embargoed.” By concentrating its national energy and attention on stifling China’s advance, the US has neglected to invest in solutions and remedies that would have raised the well-being of America. We Americans could have raised the living standard of the poor. We could have made universal health care affordable for everyone. We could have repaired our old bridges and highways. We could have strengthened our law and order and made it fair to all regardless of race. We could have invested in our education and in scientific research to ensure our future. We could have done all that and more. Instead, we experienced more than 30 years of stagnation and indolence because of the US determination to rule the world.

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