Will Obama's State of the Union Speech Initiate a Green Sputnik Moment?

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Ok, I now have to concede, Tom Friedman wins with his "green Sputnik", even if the US doesn't "win the future." As Obama invoked the "Sputnik moment" analogy in the SOTU, it felt like a whistle was blown to start the clean energy race. Game's on, China (yeah, like there is any mystery as to who we're racing against). Remember that major state visit last week, when Obama described the US-China bilateral relationship as both cooperation and competition? Well, Tuesday night was about that second part. However, Obama didn't lapse into Friedman's occasional "authoritarian envy" (i.e. China's so focused and disciplined, the central government can just execute superbly!), instead taking a dig at it and closing with a defense of the US system:

Of course, some countries don't have this problem. If the central government wants a railroad, they get a railroad - no matter how many homes are bulldozed. If they don't want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn't get written.

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

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Yes, our political system isn't functioning so well these days, but it's our dysfunctional political system! This echoes Winston Churchill's quip about democracy, that it is the worst system except for all the others that have been attempted. 

Of course, Obama's speech wasn't about China. The "authoritarian capitalists" were simply strategically deployed as the "external" challenge to which Americans must rise. (And we might even need their capital to get that railroad Obama talked about). If nothing else, the president certainly grasped the current "China can do it better" zeitgeist, tiger mothers and all.

Healthy competition between US and China should be encouraged and even embraced. A clean energy race, operating within certain norms and by certain rules, will theoretically benefit markets across the world and allow faster adoption of new technologies. But as I've noted before, this thought framework could also risk generating suboptimal outcomes, even as it is clearly well-intentioned to spur domestic American action and spending. That is, many already view China as cheating, rather than fairly competing, its way to the top. Therefore, should the US fight dirty too or protect its industries from the Chinese? Those do not sound like good options to me. Yet given the current political dynamics, it might be prudent to ensure that the "race" mentality does not devolve into mutual recriminations and escalating protectionism on either side of the Pacific. That is clearly negative for the development and sustainability of the clean energy sector.

Let's hope that Sputnik does what it is intended to do: catalyze the 21st century American renaissance.

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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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