Can the US Get Back the Needed Moral Authority to Host a 2020 World Expo?

On his China Beat blog this week, Chinese culture scholar and my friend Jeffrey Wasserstrom strongly condemns California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's plans to host a World Expo in San Francisco's Bay Area in 2020. I agree with Jeff's particular gripes about Schwarzenegger's motives and his (lack of) experience necessary for hosting the 2020 World Expo. I'm not so sure, however, that the Shanghai Expo provides a good meter against which to measure US capacity, nor does our immediate economic distress signal an end to all US participation in Expos, including possibly hosting a World Expo. There are more serious reasons that might prevent our success. I'll get to them presently.

China had the chance to break new ground but instead ended up giving the world a stupendously super-sized version of Expos past that to all appearances contravenes the very theme that portended to make this Expo special, "Better City, Better LIfe." Drexel historian Scott Knowles explains why in his blog posting, "Phantom of the Fair." The Shanghai Expo was largely about bending the knee to China, not about China reaching out to the rest of the world. Our State Department may have curtsied in Shanghai, but the China Expo model wouldn't work in gregarious America.

I don't agree with Jeff that a World Expo can't take place simply because, per the cliche, "California is broke." The economic malaise affecting California is serious, but the state still looks and feels a hell of a lot more energetic than most parts of the USA; and the setback is momentary while the California economy reorganizes. There is probably more money sloshing around in California, albeit much of it in private coffers, than ever before. And by 2020, the Chinese and Indians, like the Japanese before them, will have invested big-time. One of the candidates for California governor is spending $200 million to get elected, when all the ancillary contributions are added in. The state and its economy must be worth something.


San Francisco's 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition

The real problem with the Bay Area -- or any US region -- hosting the World Expo is Schwarzenegger's blustery assumption that the rest of the world will be all over the USA to become its 2020 World Expo host. After our abysmal performance in Shanghai this year, we haven't the moral authority. Mismanagement, misrepresentation, and corruption were the order of the day. If most Americans don't know about that -- hell, they don't even know where Shanghai is or what an Expo's about, so why should that matter? -- the foreign-affairs ministries of the nations represented in Shanghai certainly do.

Even as the Expo winds down, I'm still digging into the slag heap that was the "USA" Pavilion: a completely private, law-evading, tax-exempt front for wealthy corporations, a private company posing as a public institution representing the American people with the complicity of two Administrations. As one top-notch reporter observed, to a determined investigator, the melange of conflicted interests wrapped up in the "USA" Pavilion ribbon is a gift that keeps on giving.

When Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., is finally compelled to open its books, we are going to be amazed.

Oh, and that little scrap of "Action Plan" written about elsewhere, that set the stage for America's first wholly privatized public diplomacy initiative? It wasn't a casual afterthought written on the back of a napkin; it's written into the law. The State Department officially planned for a bogus private tax-exempt company to run the "USA" Pavilion -- they even stole our nation's name -- to collect corporate contributions. Is that company, Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., using this money for nefarious purposes? I suspect so. Is its partner the Shanghai AmCham laundering money and passing it back to the US Chamber of Commerce to elect candidates? Could be. And did the Shanghai Consulate aid and abet violations of the Foreign Service Act to keep this chewing-gum effort intact and functioning or these purposes? One might very well think so. I, of course, couldn't possibly say.

No one's seen Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.'s books, nor (according to the IRS) has it filed a required tax return in almost three years. Will we before the perps leave the scene? Only the Feds can say. Once we get that little detail settled -- and on the side, we conclude our warring adventures overseas -- of course the Bay Area, still one of America's richest regions, can pull it off. It's true as Jeff has written, the cash doesn't trickle down much to Irvine anymore, but that's because OC has been written off by the powers that be as a bastion of white privilege falling to the hordes of immigrants and children of immigrants (and if it weren't for the naval retirees, so would SD, too). The Bay Area, on the other hand, has long embraced diversity and has always relied on organic growth -- and lo and behold, it's still vigorous. It works, somehow!

A website to move the US World Expo forward has been created by Bay Area designer Urso Chappell, proprietor of the Expo Museum online and a champion of a US 2020 World Expo. It has links to the many websites and Facebook Pages set up by US World Expo proponents in Minneapolis, Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, and elsewhere.

As to our hosting an Expo in 2020, Americans at the moment need to be less reactive and more honestly reflective. The overpriced mediocrity that passed for US "participation" in the Shanghai Expo should have no bearing on American planning for a US World Expo. The "USA Pavilion" wasn't really a national pavilion; it was a corporate pavilion, and the sooner we come to terms with it, the sooner other nations will take us seriously again. Or we can live with our lies and be ignored. Without moral authority.

It's a choice our nation needs to take seriously, not only for the sake of the Expo, but for its own sake. Expos are a barometer of a nation's health and self-image. If this years "USA" Pavilion was an indication, we are in need of stiff therapy, and now.