On May 1, Expo 2010, the largest and most expensive world's fair in history, will open on 2.5 square miles of prime Shanghai riverbank for a six-month run that its hosts hope will help bolster the city's global reputation. Although largely overlooked by the American public, Expo 2010 has not been overlooked by the U.S. secretary of state's office: For more than a year, Hillary Clinton has spent considerable time and effort raising private money to pay for the construction of a U.S. pavilion to showcase American technology, culture, and achievement to the event's expected 90 million international attendees. Unfortunately, this particular effort at public diplomacy has faltered repeatedly; the behind-the-scenes saga may best be remembered for allegations of nepotism, frictions with the Chinese government and Expo organizers, and a mediocre, uninspiring pavilion design.
World Expos, despite the quaint and archaic image they evoke for many Americans, remain for much of the world major events, considered third only to the Olympics and World Cups for viewer interest and as marketing opportunities. They are highly sought-after events, viewed -- like the Olympics -- as nation-branding exercises for both hosts and guests. And from their origins, pavilion architecture has been the favored means of presenting a country's technology, wealth, and ingenuity. During the Cold War in particular, U.S. pavilions received elaborate public funding and support and employed some of the country's best architects and engineers. But in 1994, in the wake of diplomatic spats, congressional loss of interest in public diplomacy, and American loss of interest in Expos, Congress passed a law preventing the (now defunct) United States Information Agency (USIA) from spending any money on Expos without an express authorization and appropriation by Congress. Henceforth, funding for U.S. pavilions had to come from the private sector -- an expenditure that few American companies were interested in making (thus, Toyota sponsored the U.S. pavilion at Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan). Meanwhile, most other countries continued providing public funding -- in some cases, supplemented with private sponsorships.
Despite nearly two decades of U.S. government inattention to Expos, some in the State Department and the U.S. Expo community had hopes that the United States might put on a better show in Shanghai. In November 2006, the State Department, which had taken over the role of managing U.S. participation at Expos from the USIA, published an official "request for proposal" (RFP) to design, build, and fund a U.S. pavilion in Shanghai. Among other provisions, it required a detailed plan for raising a hefty $75 million to $100 million even though most of the national pavilions at Expo 2010 cost less than $30 million and the eventual U.S. pavilion is budgeted at $61 million. Despite this high bar, several groups of designers, architects, and producers submitted detailed proposals, including a proposal that had Frank Gehry as an architect. But the State Department rejected them all, and according to correspondence shared between the department and the last rejected proposal group, the RFP ended in late 2007 without a team in place.
The State Department has refused repeated requests to discuss the RFP and the reasons that the submissions failed. However, at least one of the groups that submitted an unsuccessful bid has raised concerns about the sincerity and fairness of the process and the State Department officials who oversaw it. Moreover, the State Department has a controversial history in administering U.S. Expo involvement since the mid-1990s, including an inspector general's 1999 finding that well-intentioned State Department employees might have violated the law in their single-minded effort to ensure U.S. participation in a 1998 expo.