Note: The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of AEL.

Thomas Friedman popularized it in 2009; Barack Obama reiterated in 2011. The Sputnik metaphor employed by both—Obama most recently in the State of the Union—handily condenses the clean energy challenge into a “great race” to win our nascent energy economy, to win the future, and to put America back on a path to exceptionalism.

We’ve had a few weeks to review and digest the Sputnik metaphor as put forth in the State of the Union. Commentary (including that from AEL) has been positive, noting a need to unify Americans in “stark and bracingly simple” terms, embrace a supply-side investment strategy, and inspire the action needed to take America’s energy future by the reins.

On the other hand, those skeptical of the metaphor have focused on the idea that Sputnik is generally mismatched to America’s current challenge — some stating that America’s energy situation doesn’t demand the same urgency as the Space Race and that if Obama’s domestic investment policies don’t bear fruit quickly, the public may soon grow disenchanted with them.

Atlantic Wire, while dutifully acknowledging the power of Sputnik as a catalyst, admirably synthesized various reasons for the perceived metaphor mismatch. One argument put forth— “Can We Have ‘Sputnik’ Without an External Enemy?” –is worthy of further discussion, and argues that “President Obama wants us to recreate the same sense of urgency [as in the Space Race], and the same national unity, but without the same fear of another competitor country, unless that country is supposed to be China.”

Particularly in light of President Hu’s recent visit, the administration does not appear to want to turn China into a competitor country on the same scale as the Soviet Union. (Nor should it.) But while China is not currently considered an outright competitor country, what if, in attempts to further the Sputnik narrative, the administration’s approach to a Sputnik-centered energy policy unwittingly transforms China into a staunch “competitor” in the eyes of Americans? And if that begins to occur, how do we prevent the alienation of Chinese Americans within the United States, or a general mistyping of the Chinese people as a whole?

The link between Sputnik metaphors and anti-Chinese sentiment may seem questionable, but remember those China ads from the 2010 midterm elections? Examples include (former) Senator Russ Feingold, West Virginia Congressional candidate Spike Maynard, and 501(c)(4) Citizens Against Government Waste—vilifying China or constructed to inspire fear of China in voters fearful of “falling behind.” Perhaps it says something that both Feingold and Maynard lost, given their tactics – but the fact that both found the ads politically viable is troubling.

Furthermore, even before the State of the Union, the Administration had already begun to solidify a Sputnik narrative, filing a complaint over China’s domestic clean energy subsidies with the WTO in late 2010, after months of clamoring by the United Steelworkers Union.

Peggy Liu, Chairperson of the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) encapsulated the tension best, and ahead of time, in the 2010 Economist online debates: “China’s push in wind and solar is less about trying to win the Sputnik of clean-tech over the United States and more about providing cheap and scalable energy solutions across the vast domestic Chinese market and staying competitive in the export market.”

It’s not just that the Sputnik metaphor is arguably a bit forced to those who know the energy landscape well. After all, no metaphor is perfect, and Obama’s was undeniably well-intentioned. The problem is that we seem to appear unaware of its possible unintended consequences — accepting the metaphor without qualification runs the risk of portraying the Chinese people as distant potential enemies to young Americans, including young Chinese-Americans, who will be growing up in the same “future” we seek to “win.”

But cognizance of a potential problem, after all, is a start. And addressing the issue may, in fact, be its finish. The Obama administration should simply be actively inclusive of Chinese-Americans (and the Chinese people), as partners in developing America’s (and a global) energy future, particularly as things progress with the WTO complaint.  This means continuously framing the subsidy issue as one of fairness, and making unavoidably clear distinctions between the Chinese people and the actions of the Chinese government.

Why is this type of outreach so important? As the China Google debacle unfolded in January of 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a notable speech about cyberfreedom, singling out China for substantial criticism. The parts of Clinton’s speech explicitly critical of China were played on loop, on state-run Chinese television, in the Shanghainese subway (with Chinese subtitles), for consecutive days.

So when the Obama administration singles out China for energy-oriented criticism, it must be more actively engaged in the business of continuously framing its energy dialogue for broader cultural consumption by the Chinese and American peoples. Because consume it they will; and that consumption may, in turn, determine the larger social macrodynamics of the energy future we’re presumably seeking to win.

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Elizabeth Campbell is a Policy Fellow in AEL’s New Energy Leaders Project.

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