Neglecting World’s Fairs Doesn’t Make Them Go Away, So Let’s Do It Right

Speaking Out


Secretary of State John F. Kerry with student ambassadors at Milan Expo 2015.
Courtesy of Beatrice Camp

In the search for effective ways to promote the United States abroad, the Department of State has revived some once standard, later abandoned public diplomacy functions such as English-language instruction and American Centers (now American Spaces). Meanwhile, participation in world’s fairs, incubated in the same U. S. Information Agency womb, is treated as an unwanted stepchild by the department.

Successful U.S. pavilions at four recent fairs—Milan 2015, Yeosu 2012, Shanghai 2010 and Aichi 2005—welcomed a total of 20 million visitors. This and other achievements came at minimal cost to the U.S. government, which relies on private-sector funding to create and manage our official presence.

By comparison, American Spaces, a current darling of public diplomacy, boast smaller visitor numbers and bigger budgets. The much touted space in Jakarta, which explored the Shanghai Expo for ideas, has cost roughly $20 million since opening in 2010, while another $26 million has gone to the new American Space in Rangoon.

Given past world’s fair successes, it would be unfortunate if the challenges we faced in Milan—and at earlier expos—made the department even less eager to sign on for future fairs. A better reaction would be a dedication to doing it right, with a strong partnership between relevant bureaus and a real commitment of resources.

Missing in Milan

Both of these were missing for Milan. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which traditionally had the lead for world’s fairs, happily bowed out of Milan when the Bureau of European Affairs (EUR) accepted the baton. Despite initial enthusiasm, however, EUR limited its investment to a one-person office in EUR/PD and one additional officer in Milan, while ECA adamantly declined any involvement.

Once upon a time, USIA’s Exhibits Office and its expo unit had experienced staff who knew how to manage the processes, anticipate problems and deal with the many complex aspects of world’s fairs from a long-term perspective, drawing on the lessons of past expos and planning years ahead. Our problems at recent expos show the pitfalls of today’s limited engagement and oversight by the department.

Our problems at recent expos show the pitfalls of today’s limited engagement and oversight by the department.

For Milan, the small group in EUR that handled the 2013-2014 Request for Proposal process, selection of a private-sector partner, and signing of agreements with the partner organization and the Milan Expo authority had rotated out by the time career officer coordinators were positioned in Washington and Milan, the pavilion was under construction, and content was created and staff hired.

Almost no one thought to object when the private-sector partner upped the budget from $45 million to $60 million, a little-noticed change that loomed large the following year as fundraising fell short. Reportedly, the Friends of the USA Pavilion ended up more than $20 million in debt, leaving a wide swath of vendors awaiting payment.

The budget shortfall was just one result of the department’s failure to designate a permanent office to manage the complex expo process; more fundamentally, and longer-term, it means that decisions about U.S. participation are dragged out until the last possible minute, increasing the cost and complexity involved in creating a presence we can be proud of.

Five years before the Milan Expo, we had even less time—just 10 months—to build a pavilion at the even larger Shanghai Expo 2010. While ultimately racking up acclaim on multiple levels in presenting American culture and values to more than seven million Chinese visitors, the reputation for being one of the last countries to sign on to China’s big party hung on as a juicy media trope of delinquent American leadership.

Time for Decisions

The entrance to the U.S. pavilion, American Food 2.0, at Expo Milan.
Courtesy of Beatrice Camp

Now, with the window narrowing for a decision on next year’s three-month expo in Kazakhstan, we run the risk of snubbing the first world’s fair in a former Soviet state, even while 90 other countries have signed on. Next on the horizon is the larger, six-month Dubai Expo 2020. Given strong U.S. political, military and commercial interests in the United Arab Emirates, it’s a good bet that we will eventually say yes to Dubai; the question is when.

Rather than face yet another too-little, too-late presence, the department should begin planning now. That means not just relying on the regional bureau, but also requiring the active engagement of the public diplomacy, economic, energy and environmental bureaus, at a minimum. A well-supported lead office is needed to integrate programs and interests throughout the department and other agencies into a variety of expo programs that support U.S. interests, policies and business.

It’s worth repeating that we have succeeded at recent world’s fairs far beyond the modest U.S. government resources invested. Even while private-sector fundraising foundered, our U.S. pavilion in Milan attracted more than six million visitors during the six-month expo, as well as garnering positive reviews and international press coverage.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack led presidential delegations to the Milan Expo, while Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech linking food security and global change during his October visit.

Why Should We Care?

But why should we care about a presence at world’s fairs? What are the benefits?

• “Part trade show, theater of nationalism and techno-utopian fantasyland,” in the words of one academic, world’s fairs offer government-to-government, people-to-people, business-to-business and expert-to-expert opportunities, as well as all the variations this line-up suggests.

• World’s fairs provide a relaxed setting for diplomacy, an opportunity seized by the 29 national leaders who paid calls at the Milan Expo, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

• U.S. pavilions help American companies reach customers, foreign businesses and government officials. Local American Chambers of Commerce in both Milan and Shanghai were enthusiastic partners of both U.S. pavilions.

• World’s fairs inspire and promote innovation. In Milan, the U.S. pavilion created an accelerator program focused on solutions to global food issues and featured smart glass panels that adapted to sunlight. NASA sent its administrator and four other top scientists to inspire audiences with the agency’s contributions to agriculture and water resources, as well as space exploration.

• Multilingual U.S. student ambassadors introduce visitors to the U.S. pavilion and to American youth and culture; many students who served in recent expos have gone on to Foreign Service and related careers.

• Expos are an international showcase for architecture and design. The U.K., which used British firms chosen by competition, won acclaim and design awards in both Shanghai and Milan.

Rather than face yet another too-little, too-late presence, the State Department should begin planning now.

Milan offered a taste of how much more can be accomplished, with the United Nations hosting world leaders and nongovernmental organizations on World Food Day, chefs demonstrating how wasted food can be utilized, and the U.S. pavilion’s vertical farm illustrating agricultural innovation.

Unfortunately, a number of ambitious ideas generated by the U.S. organizers withered on the vine due to lack of money or support from the department. These included collaboration with the Iowa Writers Workshop on the theme of food and an iftar with the neighboring Kuwaiti pavilion.

Stronger U.S. leadership and a willingness to take risks would stimulate new approaches to working with other cultures in tackling world problems.

After years of half-hearted and last-minute efforts, it’s past time for a whole-of-department effort that recognizes the rich possibilities of participating in these “intellectual Olympics,” global events hosted by countries where we have major interests.

As President Barack Obama instructed chiefs of mission this spring: “We’ve got to keep partnering with nations and people to seize the incredible opportunities at this moment in history. … Some of you have participated in international fora, and you know that if the United States isn’t right smack dab in the middle of it, if we’re not helping to set that agenda, it doesn’t happen. People look to us for leadership.”

We have much to gain from our role in world expos. It’s time to stop dithering and do it right.

As consul general in Shanghai from 2008 to 2011, Beatrice Camp oversaw U.S. participation in China’s 2010 world’s fair; in 2014, she was recruited by the State Department’s Bureau of European Affairs to coordinate participation in Expo Milano 2015. She recently retired from a Foreign Service career that took her to China, Thailand, Sweden, Hungary, as well as to assignments at the department and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.