My first glimpse of the ineptitude of current US public diplomacy was a Fourth of July party thrown by the American Embassy in Berlin in 2003. The setting was a lovely garden, but America’s many culinary traditions were represented by Burger King, KFC, and Pepsi; and her rich cultural heritage was summed up in a medley of Motown hits performed by a military band in a style best described as latter-day minstrel.
Now jaded, I ponder the pathetic US pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai, and shrug. This is how my country presents itself these days, and when the world reacts with bewilderment and scorn, the Obama administration seems no more perturbed than its predecessor.
The pavilion’s motto, “Rising to the Challenge,” should be followed by a “Not.” The $61 million building itself is sleek but ordinary, indistinguishable from a million similar ones in suburban office parks all over the world. The exhibition is dominated by workaday booths bearing corporate logos. The theater shows a single film, a feel-good piece about a rainbow of “diverse” Americans planting a garden in the inner city. And (shades of Berlin) the food court hosts Pizza Hut and KFC ... both of which already exist on the streets of Shanghai.
I gather there will be some good musical performances, by Herbie Hancock and other esteemed performers. Let’s hope they don’t mug and cavort like that military band in Berlin.
During the Cold War, the United States devoted considerable resources to exhibitions, the most famous being the 1959 American National Exhibition held in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park. On that occasion, 2.7 million Soviet visitors were regaled, not only with free Pepsi, but also with a 78-foot-high geodesic dome; a collection of abstract and representational American paintings; Edward Streichen’s Family of Man photos; Circarama (Disney’s movie-in-the-round); color TV; slides of the good life in the States; a Russian-language computer; books and magazines that were not for sale but could (with encouragement) be purloined; and of course, the model American kitchen in which Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Nixon debated the merits of their two systems.
I’m not suggesting we turn back the clock and try to dazzle the Chinese with our computers and microwaves. (They’ve seen them already; they built them.) But I am suggesting that public diplomacy is too important to be left to private players who are either self-interested, naive, or both. Of course, one might argue that it is also too important to be left to politicians. Back in 1959, Joe McCarthy’s successor on HUAC, Senator Francis E. Walter (D-PA), objected to the inclusion of abstract art on the ground that it was communistic “noodling.” As it happened, this was almost identical to the Soviet view; gazing upon John Marin’s Sea and Sky, Khrushchev commented: “It looks as though someone peed on the canvas.”
In the event, Nixon saved the day by arguing that “to withdraw any of the art at this point” would “run the risk of creating an American Pasternak.” That’s what we need now: someone capable of seeing the bigger picture. But that’s also what we aren’t getting, because ever since the triumphalist 1990s, the bipartisan consensus has been that the whole business of communicating with foreign populations is best left to the commercial media. One result, helped along by the Commerce Department and the Office of the US Trade Representative, has been a fivefold increase in the legal export of American entertainment, at a time when more than 60 percent of Americans think it contains too much graphic sex, violence, and sheer nastiness.
Another result has been a species of “public-private partnership” in which rhetoric about “competition” and “excellence” obscures a process partaking of neither. For a detailed account of the blinkered cronyism leading up to Expo 2010, see articles by journalist Adam Minter: here and here. See also the reply of Jose Villarreal, the Democratic fund-raiser credited with having rescued the project, which (as noted by several readers) addresses none of Minter’s substantive charges (click here).
Does any of this matter? The latest BBC poll suggests that China, with its $4.2 billion Expo extravaganza, is dropping in the world’s esteem; while America, with its half-baked contribution, is rising. Doubtless China’s global reputation depends less on having the biggest, shiniest, reddest pavilion than on its recent repression of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang — especially when set against the election of America’s first African-American president.
Yet consider: officials expect an estimated 70 million people to attend Expo 2010, including millions of Chinese whose knowledge of America is aggressively restricted by their government. The one good thing I’ve heard about the US pavilion is that it is staffed by 160 Mandarin-speaking American college students. This was the key to success back in 1959: according to a great many former visitors, the best thing about that exhibition was the chance to converse freely with young Americans fluent in Russian.
Will that be the case in 2010? Are the “pavilion student ambassadors” prepared to converse not just about American consumer products but also about American political principles? If you think they should be, then you are already dissenting from the lackadaisical confusion that for several years now has passed for US public diplomacy.