The administration usually loves to throw around the idea that the international arena is not defined by zero-sum games, but in last night’s State of the Union, Obama took a clear turn, sending mixed messages about his multipolar worldview with an address themed “Winning the Future.” In stark contrast to all the “win-win” rhetoric — another favored term — of past years, last night’s speech framed the competition for jobs through a “yours-or-mine,” “here-or-there” lens in a way that has never been done before.
Japan, Nov. 2010
Rapid growth will lead to a healthy competition for the jobs and industries of the future. And as President of the United States, I make no apologies for doing whatever I can to bring those jobs and industries to America. But what I’ve also said throughout this trip is that in the 21st century, there is no need to view trade, commerce, or economic growth as zero-sum games, where one country always has to prosper at the expense of another. If we work together, and act together, strengthening our economic ties can be a win-win for all of our nations.
India, Nov. 2010
We’ve all lived the world of globalization and know that it’s not a zero-sum game, that it creates jobs in the United States and also creates jobs in India.
Russia, July 2009
Competition in everything from astrophysics to athletics was treated as a zero-sum game. If one person won, then the other person had to lose. And then, within a few short years, the world as it was [during the Cold War] ceased to be.
Now, here are some excerpts of last night’s SOTU (emphasis mine):
At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else.
The future is ours to win.
We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.
But if we want to win the future — if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas — then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.
Obama’s first three (of few) references to a foreign country were to China and India — in the context of competing for jobs — and to the former U.S.S.R., or “the Soviets” — in relating how they “beat us into space.” He follows up with the speech’s tagline: “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.” Wait a second, didn’t Secretary Clinton just admonish us two weeks ago for “Cold War-style” thinking based on “outdated,” “19th century” “zero-sum formulas?” “We reject those views,” she said. Yet, last night, the president made Sputnik — a symbol of the Cold War — one of the linchpins of his speech. And he reminded us repeatedly that “they” are “beating” us — China on solar research, the fastest computer, faster trains, newer airports; India on math and science education; South Korea on teachers and internet proliferation; Europe and Russia on infrastructure investments — and he told us that we must, must “win the future” (seven times) — one that is “ours to win.”
Here’s Robert Dreyfuss’s take:
He didn’t exactly trumpet American “exceptionalism,” and he didn’t proclaim America’s mission to remake the world, in so many words, but he inserted into his speech an odd phrase: “No one rival superpower is aligned against us.” Without saying so, he portrayed the United States, therefore, as the world’s lone superpower, an errant vision that reinforces the view of the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists that America has some vague responsibility for the rest of the world. “American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored,” he proclaimed. Really? Nowhere in his speech did Obama reflect on the necessary, humbling vision of the United States as a declining world power whose future depends on its reaching a series of accommodations with at least five or six other rising powers and regions.
If America’s standing has been restored, where was it before? And if it’s been restored, why are we trying to “win the future?” Of course, implicit in this phrase is that, right now, we’re losing — or, on track to lose.
[The] world has changed. And for many, the change has been painful… I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans who’ve seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear — proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game. They’re right. The rules have changed… yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real.
Another shift in tone and rhetoric. What happened to this? Change is no longer framed as promising and auspicious, overflowing with effortless confidence and hopeful optimism. Now, the message is: Change hurts. And it’s happening whether we like it or not. So we better shape up or we. will. lose.
But let’s back up a bit, the administration may not actually be abandoning its multilateralism, although it certainly sounded like it last night. Obama’s very acknowledgement of foreign innovations, of other nations leading where we once did, can even be seen as legitimizing the administration’s multipolar worldview. “No one rival superpower is aligned against us” could be interpreted in various ways other than Dreyfuss’s — that there are many rival superpowers aligned against us, that there are no superpowers, that the other powers aren’t rivals, that the other powers aren’t aligned against us…
The “Winning the Future” address no doubt indicated a move to the center, so it’s no wonder that his words also reflected that shift, using words that House Republicans might respond to in the hopes that they won’t slaughter his budget proposals too mercilessly — as one commentator put it, selling liberal ideas with conservative language. Last week, Shah made the case for U.S.A.I.D.: Invest in development, or else you put national security at risk. Last night, it was: Invest in innovation, education and infrastructure, or else we’ll lose to the Soviets (or, China and India). This is our Sputnik moment, indeed. As Brett Schaefer said at yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “Urgent Problems” at the United Nations — during which calls were made to withhold U.S. contributions and even defund the world body altogether — “The U.N. may have five official languages” — and Obama may be able to spout metaphors that allude to zero-sum games — “but the bottom line speaks loudest.”