The Shanghai Expo is officially open and the U.S. pavilion is officially underwhelming--a hastily cobbled tribute to eleventh hour sponsors. The Washington Post quotes a disappointed visitor who criticized the abundance of corporate logos, adding, "I thought the USA would have some brilliant and exciting stuff. . . . Except for buying some souvenirs, I can't think of anything special about it." Even its theme (Rising to the Challenge) is mildly cringe-inducing, given that the pavilion nearly folded due to lack of funds.
The exposition is of course rife with international swipes and backbiting, a tradition as old as the exposition itself. As Armand Mattelart argues in The Emergence of Technical Networks, expositions have always been symbolic affairs: "The cosmopolitan rhetoric of universal fraternity and the people's fair scarcely conceals the fact that the universal exposition was a place of rival nationalisms and the production of a public discourse--political and scientific--that consecrated the notion of 'Western civilization' as the beacon of progress for other peoples."
With the current theme of Better City, Better Life, Shanghai is putting an urban spin on the modernization message. But the environment is the same: a roiling mass of people shuttled between one exhibit after another, each nation trying to put on the best show. And in the midst of it, the U.S. pavilion, underfunded by the government and overshadowed by its corporate partners. It may not be selling a fair picture of the United States--but its representation of U.S. public diplomacy is all too clear.