U.S. can still lose face at world's fair

The biggest Shanghai surprise so far is how U.S. participation in China's Expo 2010, once in doubt, has been saved by Hillary Clinton's prodigious fund-raising ability. But it's not the whole story.
Crosscut archive image.

Architect's sketch of U.S. Pavilion for Expo 2010

The biggest Shanghai surprise so far is how U.S. participation in China's Expo 2010, once in doubt, has been saved by Hillary Clinton's prodigious fund-raising ability. But it's not the whole story.

I've long been writing about the travails of the U.S. participation in the upcoming Expo 2010, the largest world's fair in history. It will open in Shanghai, China in May.

In 2007, it looked like the U.S. was headed for another George W. Bush foreign policy fiasco as the American effort to find a pavilion concept and the funds to build it were foundering. But with the change of administrations this year, things began looking up, notably due to the involvement of former Washington governor Gary Locke, now secretary of commerce, and most importantly, the hands-on involvement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Back in April, I wrote how critical this pair would be to the expo effort.

The U.S. has a spotty record of participating in recent expositions, partly due to domestic politics, the usual American xenophobia, and legislation that restricts government spending on such things as expo pavilions. This time U.S. expo troubles were exacerbated by the global economic downturn. But things are finally rolling. The pavilion concept is starting to take shape, and will feature a multimedia show. An overview by China Daily staffer Brad Webber gives a little bit of flavor of what to expect:

Thankfully, the US pavilion has escaped the grasp of geodesic dome fetishists, but the angular, shiny shell contrasts with the organic and traditional architecture of its neighbors. Inside, however, the 5,500-sq-m pavilion's innards, particularly its multimedia presentation, will dazzle, [U.S. expo commissioner general Jose] Villarreal promised....

"You will be able to feel it. It's not just watching a show. It will have five 15-m high screens in a circular space. You feel like you are part of an American city in the future through a multidimensional, three-act show of theatrical production, exhibits and post-show staging," he said.

Smell-O-Vision is out, but visitors should anticipate the thrill of rumbling seats and (spoiler alert!) bring towels.

Webber, an ex-Spokaneite, also amusingly contrasts the scale and expectations of Expo 2010 with the one world's fair he's attended, his hometown's Expo '74 which, he says featured a giant "Trash Mountain" and acts like Up With People. The impact of the fair on the renewal of Spokane, however, has been profound.

But the big news is that the U.S., faced with a global recession and a change in administrations, has flexed its muscle to raise the private funds needed to put on a respectable show. Corporate sponsorships have blossomed under the encouragement of Hillary Clinton. They include Boeing, Microsoft, Pepsi, Honeywell, WalMart, Chevron, and Dell. According to the New York Times:

[Hillary Clinton has] turned to her well-established network of Clinton fund-raisers, and after negotiating with the State Department'ꀙs lawyers about what she could legally do herself to support the project, she mounted an ambitious fund-raising campaign that has netted close to $54 million in barely nine months....

Despite [legal] restrictions, and a dismal economy, Mrs. Clinton is closing in on her $61 million goal. She is clearly proud of the effort, which staved off what could have been a rupture in American-Chinese relations. In a year in which she has mostly worked to prove herself a loyal member of the Obama team, the campaign also showcases her enduring political drawing power.

"The idea, for many people, of raising more than $50 million would seem really daunting," Mrs. Clinton said in an interview. "Maybe because I had participated in raising so much money in the past, I wasn'ꀙt daunted by it. I knew it was going to be hard under the circumstances."

Helping in the effort is Villareal, a former supporter of Clinton's presidential bid who has also raised money for Al Gore and John Kerry, and Elizabeth F. Bagley, who was ambassador to Portugal under Bill Clinton and who has been appointed to help raise private funds to support public projects, according to the Times.

This is not the first time Clinton fundraisers have been involved with expos. Fundraiser for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Tony Coelho, was the U.S. representative to Expo '98 in Lisbon, a tenure that generated criticism and an investigation in the U.S. over nepotism and how funds were spent. The pavilion, however, was popular and considered a success, especially in light of a lame effort at Seville's Expo '92, and America's no-show at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany.

Having to rely entirely on private funds for U.S. expo efforts is an awkward policy that too often has resulted in pavilions that were unimaginative, too corporate, or dated. It means that sometimes public officials, like Hillary Clinton, must spend too much time raising money from corporations and having to tip-toe along ethical lines. Effective she might be, but the need to have her shaking the tin cup seems, at best, a tad unseemly. Even so, writes the Times:

Fred Wertheimer, an advocate for stricter regulations for campaign fund-raising, said he was satisfied that the State Department had handled a difficult situation properly.

"It would have been far better if the U.S. government was able to pay for the activity involved, but that does not appear to have been the case,'ꀝ he said.

While Mrs. Clinton was barred from soliciting individuals, she met with corporate sponsors in Shanghai in November, when she visited the expo site.

Her experience in the political trenches made a difference, Mr. Villarreal said. "Any other diplomat would not have had the broad base of contacts," he said.

There are critics of the Times story, however. Adam Minter, a writer and blogger (Shanghai Scrap), says it amounts to little more than puffery for the USA Pavilion, in part because it does not go into several issues. One is why the USA pavilion project has been so messed up from the beginning, with a flawed bidding process and the State Department's selection of a team to run the pavilion that did not participate in the bidding (this before Clinton became secretary of state). But too, there have been questions about the competence and ethics of both the expo team and the government's handling of the process. Writes Minter:

[T]he New York Times piece is puff that reads like a press release for an organization — USA Pavilion — desperate to shift media attention away from its murky, incompetent origins. But for those who follow USA Pavilion closely, many if not most of its problems can be traced to those origins. The fact that USA Pavilion has gone to great lengths to avoid answering questions about its "no bid" selection, and continues to obfuscate the facts surrounding it, should be a signal to reporters...that there's something amiss.

Clinton's contacts and prowess appear to have to prevented a major rift in U.S.-China relations that was like to have arisen if the U.S. had been a complete non-player in Shanghai, an event expected to draw some 70 million visitors and feature more than 190 countries. On the other hand, expos are competitive environments, and beyond all the struggles and insider backbiting, a key judgment will be how the U.S. pavilion ultimately stacks up against the rest of the world's. Does America have anything to say to the world, especially the Chinese, that's worth saying? Can it entertain and enlighten? Will it be remembered?

The mere existence of the U.S. pavilion is a kind of triumph of recovery over a self-inflicted wound; but the real proof will be in whether Clinton's efforts accomplish something more than simply averting a diplomatic disaster.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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