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15 Years of “Sputnik Moments”: The National Security State’s Favorite Cliché to Bloat Its Already Obscene Budgets
Every few weeks we have a new “Sputnik moment.'' Perhaps none of them are.
This week, we got yet another “Sputnik Moment.”
Dozens of outlets—including left-leaning ones Democracy Now! and the Guardian—breathlessly and uncritically published articles on claims made by U.S. General Mark Milley that China’s new hypersonic weapons test constituted a “Sputnik moment” in urgent need of more military funding to “counter” the “threat”:
Which is notable only because, throughout just the past five years, this is one of dozens of different “Sputnik moments,” all appealing to an alleged sense of national unity and common technological cause, spurned by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite on October 4, 1957:
Nov. 21, 2016, Wall Street Journal: China’s rise of high tech jobs “should be a Sputnik moment.”
Nov. 30, 2016, Scientific American: China’s “Big Year in Space” could spark another “Sputnik moment.”
Aug. 3, 2017, The Verge: China’s advancements in AI are a “Sputnik moment.”
Aug. 14, 2017, Fox News, Harry J. Kazianis, The Center for the National Interest: North Korea’s nuclear tests are “our generation’s ‘Sputnik’ moment.”
Aug. 25, 2017, Mint: China’s AI advancements should be viewed as a “Sputnik Moment.”
Sept. 7, 2017, Council of Foreign Relations: “Putin’s remarks [about AI] should serve as a Sputnik moment.”
Oct. 4, 2017, The Atlantic, Lawrence Krauss: “The World Needs a Terrestrial Sputnik Moment”
Oct. 4, 2017, New Yorker: “Is America Facing Another Sputnik Moment?”
Nov. 6, 2017, Venture Beat: “U.S. officials are having a ‘Sputnik moment’ over AI innovation in China”
Dec. 3, 2017, Washington Post, Robert Work, Center for a New American Security: In response to China’s use of AI: “this should serve as a call-to-arms ‘Sputnik moment.’”
Dec. 15, 2017, National Interest: China’s “rise” requires a “Sputnik Moment.”
Feb. 21, 2018, NPR: China’s advances in biotech are “kind of like Sputnik 2.0.”
March 15, 2018, New York Times, Robert Work, Center for a New American Security: In response to China’s use of AI: “This is a Sputnik moment.”
March 15, 2018, The Economist: America needs another “Sputnik moment” to combat China.
June 26, 2018, Axios: “Dysfunctional U.S. needs ‘Sputnik moment’ on future tech”
July 3, 2018, The Diplomat: “China’s Artificial Intelligence Revolution: a Sputnik Moment for the West?”
Aug. 26, 2018, The Globalist: “Will a Chinese ‘Sputnik moment’ in AI Unleash Dynamism in the West?”
Nov. 6, 2018, Washington Post, David Ignatius’: “China's application of AI should be a Sputnik moment for the U.S. But will it be?”
March 4, 2019, National Interest: North Korea’s recent nuclear tests are “our twenty-first-century Sputnik moment.”
May 15, 2019, Sen. Mark Warner: Discussing China’s recent technological advancements: “We are facing another Sputnik moment.”
June 23, 2019, PBS News Hour: China’s quantum communication technology is “quantum's Sputnik moment.”
July 18, 2019, Politico’s Global Translations podcast: China’s supposed improvements in AI are “the new Sputnik.”
Sept. 9, 2019, Newsweek, Admiral William McRaven: China’s technological advancements in general are a "Sputnik moment."
Sept. 12, 2019, Forbes, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford: The creation of Space Force is in response to a China-induced “Sputnik moment.”
Oct. 15, 2019, Wall Street Journal op-ed: China’s use of blockchain is a “Sputnik moment.”
Nov. 5, 2019, CNBC, Nigel Inkster, The International Institute for Strategic Studies: Chinese 5G expansion is “a latter-day Sputnik moment.”
Feb. 3, 2020, Richard Weitz, Hudson Institute: “America's Sputnik Moment on 5G”
June 3, 2020, Bloomberg News: “U.S. Ploughs Cash Into R&D as China Triggers a ‘Sputnik Moment’”
Aug. 25, 2020, VentureBeat: “Michael Kanaan: The U.S. needs an AI ‘Sputnik moment’ to compete with China and Russia”
Oct. 16, 2020, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană: “NATO and the West...may now be on the verge of a new ‘Sputnik Moment.’”
Oct. 29, 2020, Foreign Policy, Robert Manning, Atlantic Council: “The U.S. Finally Has a Sputnik Moment With China”
Jan. 23, 2021, Center for a New American Security: We need a new “Sputnik moment” to “meet the China Challenge.”
March 24, 2021, L.A. Times, Doyle McManus: “The U.S.-China competition is approaching a Sputnik moment of its own…Here’s why our new cold war with China could be a good thing.”
April 20, 2021, Washington Post, James Hohmann: “Our generation’s ‘Sputnik moment’ has finally arrived”
April 25, 2021, Noah Smith: “Today, the U.S. is facing another kind of Sputnik moment”
July 23, 2021, Forbes: “Cybersecurity’s Sputnik Moment”
June 28, 2021, National Journal: The “rise of China” has compelled “the House Science Committee’s new ‘Sputnik moment.’”
July 13, 2021, the Hill, David Bray of The Atlantic Council, Max Peterson of Amazon: “Emerging tech's 'Sputnik moment' requires private and public sector cooperation”
Aug. 4, 2021, the Hill, Sen. Mark Warner (Again) re: China (again): “It’s clear that I think our country is facing a new Sputnik moment.”
All of these articles, statements, and published papers call, either directly or by implication, for more public money and resources directed into our national security state. Needless to say, every think tank quoted calling for a “Sputnik moment”––Hudson, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Center for a New American Security, and Atlantic Council—are lavishly funded by weapons makers. After all, the whole point of harkening back to the “Sputnik moment” is to romanticize the Cold War, a competition among Great Powers that will fuel innovation and economic growth—at least among military industries. Never mind that five years after America’s “Sputnik moment,” the U.S. was on the brink of nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis, this part people, strangely, do not harken back to.
U.S. leaders, journalists, and the defense industry have echoed some version of this trope since the 2000s––often, in its earlier evocation, in reference to STEM education, but mostly as an entree to more defense spending. Then-President Barack Obama famously said in a 2010 speech that we needed a new “Sputnik moment” to keep pace technologically with China and Russia. A talking point he repeated during his entire tenure.
With the rare exception of the occasional generalized hand wringing about education or the Covid-19 response, never is the “Sputnik moment” the inciting incident for investment in universal pre-K, ending homelessness, providing universal health care, ending poverty, or solving climate change. Somehow our “Sputnik moments” are almost always about pumping more money into the Pentagon, weapons contractors, DARPA, the CIA, or defense-industry-adjacent university and private research.
China, too, is said to have its own “Sputnik moments”—namely in 2015 when AlphaGo, the AI system developed by DeepMind Technologies (later acquired by Alphabet), defeated a human Chinese champion at the board game Go. But all the better, because China having “Sputnik moments” necessarily implies that the U.S. needs its own counter-Sputnik moment. This never-ending string of “Sputnik moments” can only mean one thing: more check writing to weapons contractors that are simply overwhelmed by the menacing Red Dragon and must play catch up.
The basic problem with those tasked with further bloating military budgets is that it’s difficult to argue with a straight face that the U.S. military apparatus—which makes up nearly half the federal discretionary budget, is larger than the next 11 military budgets combined, and is four times greater than China’s (despite ostensibly protecting a population a quarter its size)—is “behind” other countries militarily. Yet it’s necessary for hawkish think tanks, generals and a Senators to constantly portray this as the case.
Herein lies the paradox at the heart of all funding pitches for organizations ostensibly charged with “protecting” us, whether it be police departments, the Pentagon, the FBI, or intelligence services: They must at once be both all powerful but perpetually too weak; they must be both succeeding yet “falling behind” a rotating cast of faceless enemies; they must be extremely competent at their jobs but always on the brink of losing. Broadly, the problem is, security forces, like all businesses, must constantly be growing—always pitching and selling their services to an increasingly war-weary and police-skeptical public to juice their budgets. But, at the same time, they also have to look competent at what they do and tout their successes. If they succeed too much, this logically lends itself to the question of, “Why would we give them more money? Aren’t they doing just fine as is?” And if they are falling behind “emerging threats” too often, this logically lends itself to the question of, “Why don’t we fire all the leadership, as we’ve been “lagging behind” China and Russia in key sectors for decades now.”
To reconcile this contradiction, a form of what French Philosopher Jacques Derrida calls “Kettle Logic” emerges, which is defined as “multiple arguments used to defend a point, but the arguments are inconsistent with each other.” In other words, it doesn’t actually have to make any sense, it just has to feel right. The U.S. is both justified king of the world, but also a scrappy underdog in urgent need of vastly more resources.
No go-to cliché better papers over this contradiction than the constant evocation by military brass, weapons-contractor-funded think tanks, and pro-war voices that the U.S. has just suffered or is about to suffer a “Sputnik moment.” Never mind that the 1957 Sputnik launch was not actually a surprise to U.S. intelligence officials at all—it's effective shorthand for this push and pull: Our empire is mighty but has, of late, grown complacent and lazy. We are number one right now but will soon not be! Politically, it’s brilliant: a perfect combination of appealing to conservatives with claims of a bruised national ego, appealing to liberals with something vaguely Science-y, and a touch of red scare to win over both. The more war-weary the public becomes, and more insecure our leaders are about our unchecked dominance over world affairs, the “Sputnik moments” will, no doubt, continue to pile up.