America’s Sputnik Moment in Beijing

NEW YORK – August 8, 2008, may someday be remembered as the first day of the post-American era. Or it could be remembered as another “Sputnik moment,” when, as with the Soviet foray into outer space in 1957, the American people realized that the country had lost its footing and decided it was time for the United States to get its act together.

There was no mistaking the power and symbolism of the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympic Games on August 8. That multimedia spectacular did far more than trace China’s 5,000-year history; it was a statement that China is a major civilization that demands and deserves its rightful place in the global hierarchy.

There was also no mistaking the symbolism of seeing President Bush, waving cheerfully from his spot in the bleachers while Chinese President Hu Jintao sat behind what looked more like a throne. It is hard to imagine that China’s government, which obsesses over every minute issue of diplomatic protocol, had not orchestrated this stark image of America’s decline relative to the country to which it owes $1.4 trillion. It would be hard to imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan accepting a similar relative position.

At the very same time that Bush was waving from the stands, Russia was invading Georgia, America’s closest partner in the Caucasus. Russia’s message to other West-leaning countries in the former Soviet world was clear: America cannot protect you.