After nearly two decades, the U.S. has now rejoined the universe of Global Expos — more commonly known as World’s Fairs.
Jim Core, director of the State Department’s tiny restored international expositions unit, is enthusiastic about the prospects. “These fairs,” he said, “are the Olympics of U.S. public diplomacy.” He was addressing the Public Diplomacy Council’s monthly round table September 10th at the George Washington University’s School of International Affairs.
Joining a Universal Festival of Discovery
How do World’s Fairs open up a universe of knowledge about more than a hundred countries to millions who attend the annual gatherings? Since the first of the expos in 1851 in London organized by Prince Albert, they have displayed the latest technological and cultural innovations for generations of visitors from every corner of our planet.
As Mr. Core explained in an article in State’s DIPNOTE a year ago: “Imagine beholding the first X-ray machine, first gazing at the height of the Eiffel Tower, marveling at the first telephone, discovering cotton candy, soaking in the beauty of Seattle’s Space Needle, and being the first in your town to use a touchscreen! All this — and more — happened at a World’s Fair. In fact, there is a long history of introducing innovations in technology, culture and art at international expos.”
Full-scale World Fairs that last six months are now held every five years… looking ahead, for example, in 2020 and 2025. In other years, smaller expos are held for only three months. But for the United States, Mr. Core told the PDC audience, that came to a screeching halt in the mid-1990s because of post Cold War U.S. government budget cuts. The flawed reasoning at the time: why do we need these? The Cold War was over.
The Remarkable Way Back
American advocates, however, recognized the sheer power of displaying the latest innovations in what had become by the end of last century, a traditional globe-circling way employed by individual countries who wished to share the latest cultural, technical and humanitarian innovations benefiting millions. At the turn of the century, scores of other governments fully funded world fairs.
Why not, then, turn to private sector non-governmental organizations, to do this for America? A small team at State would take the lead in appeals for participation paid for by NGOs and philanthropies interested in personally touching base with millions of world expo visitors. After all, seven million Chinese came to the Shanghai Expo in 2010, ten times as many Chinese as had visited the U.S. the same year.
In May, 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan bill (HR 535), “The U.S. Wants to Compete for a World Fair Act”, which again quoting DIPNOTE, “President Trump promptly signed into law.
So, using private donations, the U.S. re-entered the field at the Kazakhstan World’s Fair last year at its capital, Astana. The three-month exposition of seven exhibition halls made history. These buildings were surrounded by a central exhibition hall resembling a giant globe adjoining a much taller needle-like tower. It was the first exposition in a former Soviet republic, and dominated the landscape of this first ever world’s fair in Central Asia. At night, specific scenes from participating countries were magnified and projected on exterior walls at the fair.
Mr. Core saluted the enthusiasm of the American U.S. guides, including young adults, and their interaction with visitors from more than 100 countries who attended the Astana World Fair. Dr. Joshua Walker, president of the USA pavilion at Astana, wrote recently that the principal contribution of the World Fairs isn’t the physical settings or exhibits. “It’s the opportunity to meet with brilliant, innovative people around the world who share ideas and cultures in person.” The U.S. exhibit in Kazakhstan was entitled “The Source of Infinite Energy.”
Some exhibits are designed to showcase achievements, and at times, to share cultures of both participating and sponsoring countries. Jim Core’s favorite example from Astana is a Kazakh group of dancers at the U.S. pavilion demonstrating the host country’s latest popular dance. The theme: “Building Teamwork”.
Corporations bearing private sector costs of America’s participation lately have included Samsung, Cisco Systems, Chevron, Shell and Air Astana. Thirty cities in the U.S. had hosted Expos over the century and a half until the program was terminated more than two decades ago.
Katherine Brown, president of Global Ties, a non-governmental organization devoted to cultural exchanges, joined in the presentation at GWU. In her words: “We partner with a network of 90 private foreign exchange advocates in towns and cities across the U. S.” She agreed with Mr. Core that the U.S. Department of Commerce and staff of the House International Relations Committee have aided greatly in promoting private sector contributions for future World Fairs, including a somewhat similar exposition in scale to Astana next year in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.
In 2020, organizers hope to attract more than 14 million visitors and 170 national exhibitions at the Dubai World’s Fair, Mr. Core said. That booming United Arab Emirates metropolis is a leading world transportation hub. Principal U.S. goals include: rekindling traditional partnerships with American industries, non-profits, state and local governments, and enhancing impact of the Expos through planning and evaluation. “We endeavor not to exceed what’s practical, depending on funding by NGOs and our partners in the private sector.”
PDC President Adam Clayton Powell summed the public diplomacy importance of World Fairs, at the conclusion of the PDC round table on their future. “Buried deep in the news a few weeks ago was the report that sometime in the next two years, probably in the year 2020, barring world war or another catastrophic event, for the first time in human history, the majority of people will be free of want. They’ll be middle class, able to afford food, shelter and other essentials.”
Quoting from his recent remarks to senior officials at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (previously the Broadcasting Board of Governors), Mr. Powell cited reasons for the progress, principles that America may or may not have invented, but certainly embraced, such as freedom, education, entrepreneurship, empowerment of women.
“This global human achievement is the achievement of billions of people around the world, Mr. Powell concluded. “It is also America’s achievement. And so at this turn of history, it is part of America’s story that should be told to the world.” A story worthy of sharing by U.S. activities across a wide sphere: overseas missions, cultural and educational exchanges, information services including the newly rechristened U.S. Agency for Global Media, and of course, America’s renewed participation in World Fairs.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More