Where is our strategic vision when we need it?
China is hosting the next World Expo (what used to be called a World’s Fair) in Shanghai. It starts in May of 2010 and runs for six months. Seventy million people are likely to visit, the vast majority of them up and coming middle class people and (current and) future leaders from China, with many others from around the world. Each of the major countries of the world will be present with an impressive physical presence in the form of a significant pavilion and with an array of cultural and commercial programs.
Did I say all the major countries of the world? Oops: all but the US, unless things start to move very quickly. By law the US government (USG) cannot spend public funds to support a US Pavilion at such events (short-sighted in my view, but guess we have to live with that). All the USG needs to do is: 1) select a non-profit group to lead the effort (done at last, very late in the game), and, 2) throw its weight behind that group with public pronouncements on the importance of the effort, as a way of stimulating the necessary private sector funding.
There is a long, tangled, and depressing tale here, but the short version is that: (a) the Bush Administration lacked the vision to move decisively to get the ball rolling; and (b) the Obama Administration has yet to take this on in the way it should.
Is this crazy or what? Did I mention 70 million people visiting? Incredible opportunity to put the best face forward for the US at the major public event in the region (bigger BY FAR in every dimension than the Olympics)? Did I mention no US government money involved?
Think about it: Secretary Clinton’s appearance on an Indonesian music video show was a huge hit and (appropriately) applauded by observers who know we need to be rebuilding our global image. And it’s not just the legacy of the past eight years of US foreign policy. Today global economic turmoil is fueling increasing nationalism and protectionism, especially in Asia. Ok, now think about 70 million visitors, with 6 months worth of programming on US culture and commercial activities. Useful?
So, where is the big USG push on this? As best as I can figure out, some at senior levels in the Administration do get it and are trying to move forward. Why have they been stymied? Beats me, but someone should get this moving quickly.
What’s needed? To start, a major public push by President Obama (I think this does merit (rhetorical) attention from the President), Secretary Clinton, Secretary Locke, and others emphasizing to the private sector the importance of this effort. No bailout here; no US government funding guarantees. Just op-eds, letters, and phone calls, so corporate leaders and foundations in the US understand the considerable upside for them and the country.
The above is not intended to let my good friends in the private sector off the hook. A number of companies are putting in substantial funding for their own, corporate pavilions at the Expo. This is great, but they, and the many firms that have not committed to the Expo, should realize that in the long run, money which supports a positive image of the US in China is a good commercial investment. A first rate US Pavilion will make a positive contribution to this goal. And don’t forget, programs at the US Pavilion that highlight the US way of life can help illustrate themes such as the value of market driven innovation, transparency in government rules and regulations, and, yes, the continuing vitality of a market-based economy, etc., thereby supporting key US business goals in China. Finally, 140 million eyeballs on your logo and products in the US Pavilion is not a trivial marketing opportunity.
For this major, global event to come and go without a respectable US presence would be a crime. Let’s hope the strategic planners of the USG and private sector recognize and seize this opportunity.
NOTE: The folks who are organizing the US Pavilion effort have established a non-profit entity and are contributing their time on a pro-bono basis. They have the formal blessing of the State Department but lack the big push they need from USG and private sector. Best place to go to get more info on their effort is their website: http://www.usapavilion2010.com/China, Shanghai, World Expo