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  • An Embarrassment in Shanghai

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

    As a world leader, the United States cannot be lackadaisical about the power of symbols and images. Ronald Reagan knew this and as one of his first official acts as president, he turned the lights back on the monuments in Washington, which had literally been darkened by President Carter during the energy crisis. One wonders what Reagan would have thought about the symbolism of the U.S. pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo, and – for that matter — about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s current visit to China in the name of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which proceeds today and tomorrow. Most likely, he would not have been impressed.

    Somehow, the United States has ended up with the worst of two worlds, in public diplomacy terms. China is billing the Shanghai World Expo as the biggest World Expo ever – a public diplomacy extravaganza on par with the Beijing 2008 Olympics in its symbolic messaging. While the U.S. media has just about ignored this international event, China is stating that as many as 100 million visitors are expected between now and October 1. Less than a year ago, the United States did not even have plans for the construction of a pavilion, and no money was appropriated in the State Department budget for it.

    Unfortunately, this omission was not the result of a principled policy decision to protest Chinese human rights abuses. That would have been entirely justifiable, and it could, if properly explained, have made a powerful and principled public statement about American values to the world.

    Rather, the U.S. absence seems to have been an oversight on the State Department’s part, which Hillary Clinton took upon herself to correct when she took office. Consequently, the U.S. pavilion came about through corporate sponsorship (nothing wrong with that).

    Now, the concept of a public-private partnership for public diplomacy is one that has merit. The private sector is certainly more creative and usually far more efficient than the U.S. government. And it often has the means and the flexibility that the government lacks. Yet, in the absence of proper planning, thinking, and coordination, the result can backfire.

    What is far more problematic is the evidence of hasty planning. As reported by The Washington Post the outcome looks something like a convention center in a mid-sized American city, a square, windowless construction that houses three movie theaters.

    Worse is the absolute lack of a coherent public message to go with the US attendance at the World Expo. While the Obama administration is pursuing a dialogue with China that has confined any controversial mentions of human rights abuses to closed door meetings, the U.S. Secretary of State could this weekend be found in Shanghai connecting with Chinese children by handing out teddy bears. “It’s like a coming out party for countries and cities,” Clinton told reporters according to Reuters. “There is a real historical significance to them doing this.”

    Yes, indeed, but what is the message when not only the teddy bears, but every item in the gift shop from the bison to the pink cowboy hats marked “Made in China”? Perhaps the “historical significance” being implied is not what Americans would want the world to understand about their great country, nor reflecting its real role in the world.

    Posted in International [slideshow_deploy]

    7 Responses to An Embarrassment in Shanghai

    1. Alinosof, Virginia says:

      What is outrageous is that, George W. Bush’s State Department under Powell and Condi Rice had eight years to prepare and raise money for the Shanghai expo and they did nothing! Let’s no forget, when Clinton took over the Department, she had one year to find funding and build the U.S pavilion. Clinton appointed a team who raised money from corporate America (since our government does use tax payer money for such endeavor) so the U.S can be represented at the expo. The result is fine, not perfect and has attracted over 700,000 visitors to date. Instead of empty rhetoric, you and your colleague at the WaPo could provide the way forward for the funding of future world expos.

    2. Jim - USA says:



    3. Robert Jacobson says:

      Thank you for a good analysis of the US Pavilion issue up to the part where you attribute lack of State Department attention to the Expo issue to an oversight. This is not true.

      The lack of public funding for the US Pavilion and a strong message was the outcome of a policy devised in 2006 by the Bush Administration. Its goal was the privatization of American public diplomacy. This is by now almost incontrovertible based on the available facts. (The WaPost account is only the most recent among at least a dozen in the non-mainstream press that earlier laid out all of the facts more cogently.)

      The rest of your analysis, however, is right on and begs the question, in light of the oft heard claim that the US Pavilion is one of the most popular among the Chinese, is it better or worse to have so many millions visiting a partial, inept, and rather one-dimensional presentation of America and its values?

      For a confirmatory viewpoint, I direct your readers to my surprising similar analysis in the Huffington Post, "Hillary Hits Her Hut; or, How I Was Shanghai'ed at the US Pavilion, as told by the American Secretary of State (her eyes now wide-open!)," May 23, 2010.

      This is the third of three articles I published on the HuffPost. The first two deal with the issue of privatization and a tax-exemption unjustly awarded to the pavilion organizers and include links to a complaint available online, filed with the IRS; and another, also online, filed with the State Department Office of the Inspector General. Just search on my name.

      Thank you for your thoughtful analysis and prescription for future action. We don't agree on all points, but when left and right coincide, you know something important is at stake — in this case, the independence of American public diplomacy from undue personal and collective influence.

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    5. Bob Jacobson, Tucson says:

      A good analysis, except that it was not by accident or oversight, but by deliberate policy, that the Bush Administration did not act sooner to seek Congressional or other public funding.

      The Bush Administration in 2006 made a deliberate decision to privatize the US Pavilion. But it botched and then aborted the 2006-7 RFP process just when it was about to select highly qualified producers with a novel funding plan, to create a semi-private Corporation for Public Diplomacy to privately but broadly fund US pavilions on a continuing basis. (Expo to Expo transitions have always been painful.)

      Consequently, in early 2008 it was forced — in a wholly private outsourcing — to select bumblers with insider connections to produce the US Pavilion. They had no funding plan. After a year of extraordinary State Department efforts to kickstart their project, it was left to the newly appointed Secretary Clinton — who agreed with the privatization initiative — to save the day. No surprise, she competently executed on the Bush policy and took it to a higher level, to the extent that the current US Pavilion in Shanghai is exclusively the product of multinationals' contributions, subject to their "creative" as well as financial control.

      As the press now reports, even Clinton and her entourage were startled by how totally corporate the US Pavilion had become. It is a long-running informercial that does neither its sponsors — called "marketing partners" in the fundraising literature — nor the American people much credit. The US Pavilion in Shanghai has become, ironically, the best argument for NOT privatizing American public diplomacy.

      Warnings about this slow-motion train wreck appeared elsewhere long before the Washington Post or other mainstream media got the message. I refer your readers to continuing coverage on Shanghai-based correspondent Adam Minter's well regarded Shanghai Scrap blog and his summary article in Foreign Policy magazine; and to my own series of articles, the most recent of which, in the Huffington Post, recounts in great detail the entire story from beginning to end. A quick search using Google will turn up these items.

      Fortunately, Members of Congress on a bipartisan basis are looking into the situation. It's to be hoped that reforms will be instituted so that future US participation in World Expos and other international events will be planned and carried out transparently and inclusively, as the Commerce Department does today. Public diplomacy is our only alternative to war to getting our points across in a turbulent but hopeful world. To be most effective, it must remain public, broadly representing America in all ofl its wonderful diversity, and the values of all the American people generally, not just those of a commercial slice to whom it is auctioned off.

    6. Mao Ze Wrong, China says:

      Hillary Clinton not afraid to challenge the Chinese on the pressing issue between the powers: Did China steal Gumby for the Shanghai Expo. Meanwhile, protests sweep America as Gumby-gate goes global. Read about it at: http://chinareallysucks.com/Site/New_Stuff/Entrie

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