Another foreign policy fiasco?

The United States appears close to bungling its chance to participate meaningfully in the upcoming Shanghai world's fair, but a group with Northwest ties uses YouTube to try and avert international embarrassment.
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The modern Pudong skyline of Shanghai at night.

The United States appears close to bungling its chance to participate meaningfully in the upcoming Shanghai world's fair, but a group with Northwest ties uses YouTube to try and avert international embarrassment.

It's not Iraq certainly, but it might be another quagmire. The United States appears to be bungling its chance to participate meaningfully in the Shanghai world's fair, scheduled for 2010. It is going to be the largest world's fair in history, the first in China, with 70 million visitors predicted and 200 countries expected to participate, the Chinese estimate. The problem appears to be a classic Catch 22. The government is requiring that pavilion bidders come up with private funding -- as much as $100 million--which would be treated as a "gift" to the U.S. government. The U.S., unlike most governments, is barred by law from funding world's fair pavilions. But it does give official sanction to them. In this case, the state department wants evidence that funds can be raised in a timely fashion. But it is difficult for bidders to raise that kind of money without getting U.S authorization first., and even tougher within the time constraints of the bidding process. The state department has yet to choose a pavilion proposal. They issued a request for proposals in November 2006 with a February deadline. They will still not say anything about the bids they received. At least one bid is being revised with a mid-August deadline. The state department's contact, James Ogul, says "There is no timetable for a final decision." Some fear the process seems almost designed to sink the chance of participation. That may be of no consequence to the current administration, which will be out of office before 2010. There is also little political constituency today for world's fairs in the United States, where the last domestic expo was hosted nearly a generation ago, in 1984 (New Orleans). Corporate sponsors today often work through local affiliates and the U.S. has since withdrawn from membership in the Bureau of International Expositions, the world body that sanctions and supervises world's fairs. Nevertheless, the centrality of China to trade and its emergence as a global power suggest that the U.S. would have a lot to gain by a presence in Shanghai. (The Chinese are calling the event "the Economic Olympics".) It is also a chance to practice "public diplomacy" with the Chinese people. The cost of participating in Shangahi would be high, however, because of the fair's scale and scope. The privately funded U.S. pavilion at Expo 2005 in Aichi Japan cost about $34 million, about one-third of the projected budget for Shanghai. One bidder that is taking a novel approach is the Sea Witch project, a proposal by The Clipper Ship Trust of Annapolis, Maryland to recreate a 1846 classic clipper ship and use it as a seaborne ambassador to the expo and other events. Like other bidders, they are trying to line up funding. The project's head, Melbourne Smith, says they are working with Bernard Taresco who headed the U.S. Pavilion in Aichi. Another bidder, BH&L Group of Marina Del Ray, California, has strong Northwest connections. One of the principals is longtime expo and exhibition planner Barry Howard, who, in addition to having decades of expo pavilion and program experience, worked on the visitor's center at Mt. St. Helens. Other Northwest-connected team members include Bob Jacobsen, a tech entrepreneur and a co-founder of the Human Interface Technology (HIT) Lab at the University of Washington. Another is respected China consultant Sydney Rittenberg who lives in the Seattle suburbs. He is one of the few Americans to live in China under Mao (he spent some of that time in prison). He also helped to translate the Chairman's works into English. Two members of the group -- Howard and Rittenberg -- appear in a two-part video on YouTube discussing how the U.S government is risking the expo opportunity. The interview was taped at the FiRE conference in May in San Diego, an annual confab hosted by tech guru Mark Anderson of Friday Harbobr, WA. Anderson is also an expo project advisor. You can see the videos here and here, and they are worth watching. BH&L says it has also lined-up architect and EMP designer Frank Gehry to build their U.S. pavilion, if they ever get the go-ahead. Pavilons at expos of this size are often designed by leading world architects. BH&L has described its pavilion concept, in keeping with the expo's theme, "Better City, Better Life:" It would be our objective to present the history, present circumstances and projected future of the City in dramatic and compelling media, through which the audience will come to understand and appreciate the United States of the 21st century, and hopefully recognize that we are all joined together in a global, even cosmic journey that will shape the future cityscape and may well determine the longevity of our species. Cities and states sometimes participate in expos -- Washington had its own pavilion in Vancouver in 1986 (not to mention at Chicago 1893, San Diego 1915, Seattle 1962, and Spokane 1974). Some people are encouraging the city of San Francisco to have a pavilion in Shanghai, its Sister City. Such public entities are not precluded, like the U.S. government, from spending money on expositions and could represent an alternative funding source, or a way to augment corporate sponsorships. But so far, despite China trade and cultural ties and Seattle's focus on green development, neither Seattle nor Washington state have any plans to participate in the fair at this point. What is on their radar screen? How to milk some money from visitors to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Commerce, working out of the U.S. Embassy in China, continues to publish a regular update about Expo 2010. The Chinese have already kicked off pavilion construction. And some countires, like the United Kingdom, are well into the pavilion design process. For the U.S., the expo countdown clock just continues to tick.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

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