The U.S. embarrassment at the World Expo
How would you portray your own country to the world if you could choose literally anything? If you're Germany, you'd build an amazing biodegradable structure with shots of the country's most beautiful sights, host a fun show featuring an enormous digital screen on a moving crystal ball, and finish off with steins of Weissbier for everyone. If you're Mexico, you'd display Frida Kahlo paintings, and the stone towers of Chichen Itza. And if you're the good old USA, you'd put your top politicians on the screen (yep, we were the only ones to do this), show a silly movie about people working together to make a garden, and finish up with poster boards of all the giant companies that actually run things—contributing to the conspiracy theories of many that those are, in fact, our true leaders.
I may be late to the Shanghai World Expo party—the massive PR event for every country in the world that has been running since May—but I must admit that the US pavilion bummed me out. Aren't we more than just a collection of giant corporate entities and politicians? Don't we have more to offer than knowing how to say "Ni Hao" to our Chinese hosts (many of whom are totally fluent in English)?
I wasn't the only one, it appeared; though I couldn't understand what they were saying, the body language of the thousands of Chinese schoolkids and tourists who had been waiting as long as three hours to get into the pavilion did not seem positive. After all, there wasn't really anything to DO but sit through three movies (and no popcorn! this is America, right?) spouting clichés about friendship and teamwork that might have come out of Brezhnev-era Soviet Union propaganda. Though the gift shop was, as is our wont, well-stocked.
It turns out that there is a story behind our strange self-portrayal, and it's about money, of course. Unlike many of the other exhibitors, who saw this as an attempt to introduce their country and its products to a new middle class of Chinese (the government estimates some 70 million visitors will see the Expo, most of whom are from the country), the U.S. government was prohibited from spending one dollar on the Expo; private fundraising went so poorly, thanks to the 2008 elections and the financial crisis, that nearly at the last moment, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to go, tin cup in hand, to corporate sponsors to ask for the $60 million needed. Not to do so would have been a huge diplomatic embarrassment, as China, with a total Expo price tag of $45 billion, saw this as the latest dance step in the country's decade-long coming out party and would have not been pleased to have the US as a no-show.
It is understandable that the corporations asked to contribute, such as Chevron (CVX), P&G (PG) and Boeing (BA), wanted something in return—but there, the decisions come off as short-sighted: a bunch of poorly-disguised ads don't do much to help improve our suffering reputation around the world. Maybe we could have showed off our American ingenuity by doing something truly creative with little money. At least we might have tried to advance the theme, "Better City, Better Life." Even a live Yankees game, with hot dogs for all, might have worked.
I guess I should give my legislators a little bit of credit: Although the Expo is a sight to behold—the 200-odd pavilions take more than a week to get through, and the amount of building it required probably took care of China's architects and contractors for the next several years—perhaps it makes more sense to spend our money on real diplomatic efforts or job creation than creating a Disney-fied version of a country that will, in the end, be torn down and thrown away. Still, at a time when tensions run high, it would have been great to have had something that showed what we are really all about.
That's what happened over in the Cuba pavilion, which I dashed over in the middle of a thunderstorm to see. Yes, I had to go to China to get to Cuba, the weirdness of which was not lost on me (our Chinese guide almost fell over when I explained that as an American, I couldn't go to Cuba. I said that it was kind of a long story). Inside, in a relatively tiny space with walls painted to look like Cuban apartment buildings, was a cigar exhibit, some music, and, yes, a giant bar. As I happily sipped my mojito, I thought about how great it would be to hang out in Cuba. And that was the point.