The best line in U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was his contention that “this is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

It was smart because the essence of the idea is obviously true: Just as the Sputnik launching in 1957 terrified Americans with the prospect that they might lose their global scientific supremacy, the rise of the emerging markets, particularly China, has made them worry they could be losing their technological edge.

Mr. Obama’s evocation of NASA and the moon landing was an emotionally powerful reminder that Americans haven’t always viewed government investment – or even government spending – as an unequivocally bad thing.

Today’s Sputnik moment is playing out in an utterly transformed world economy whose defining characteristic is its interconnectedness. That makes winning a lot harder to define. The United States wanted the Soviet Union to lose – not just in space, but back on Earth. This time around, it isn’t quite that simple. In the age of globalization, America wants to win, and it wants everyone else to win, too – except when it doesn’t.

The President’s speech reflected that ambivalence. At times, he framed the country’s economic challenge as a Cold War-style, zero-sum game: “the competition for jobs is real,” “we need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world,” innovation must “produce jobs in America and not overseas.”