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The U.S. and Worlds Fairs: Expos as Global Soft Power

New York Worlds Fair
The Unisphere in New York’s Flushing Meadows was built for the 1964 World’s Fair. It symbolized “Man’s achievements on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe.” (© AP Images, courtesy of SHAREAMERICA)

Jim Cole, director of the State Department’s newly created International Expositions Unit, will discuss preparations for the next major world’s fair, Dubai 2020, as part of a U.S. initiative to employ global expos as a public diplomacy tool. The discussion will take place on September 10, 2018, as part of the First Monday series sponsored by PDAA, the Public Diplomacy Council, and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

The September 10 forum will take place at noon at the at George Washington University’s Elliott School Lindner Family Common, 1957 E Street St. NW, 6th Floor. Lunch is included, but members planning to attend are asked to RSVP at
firstmondayforum.rsvp@gmail.com.

The Expo Unit in the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs manages U.S. engagement with the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), organizes U.S. participation at overseas Expos (also known as World’s Fairs), and mobilizes international support for U.S. candidacies to host Expos. The United States rejoined the BIE in 2017 following passage of bipartisan legislation H.R. 534 (U.S. Wants to Compete for a World Expo Act) signed into law by President Trump (P.L. 115-32).

Expos are considered a cost-effective platform to promote commercial and public diplomacy objectives, reaching millions of people in-person and millions more through traditional and social media. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan spoke about Expos and World’s Fairs at the 2017 BIE General Assembly in support of the Minnesota Expo 2023 bid.

The United States has had national pavilions at every overseas Expo since 1851 with the exception of two, and hosted a dozen World’s Fairs (the last was New Orleans in 1984).

The six-month long Expo 2020 Dubai will be the first Expo to take place in the Middle East, North Africa, or South Asia and is expected to attract 25 million visitors; 7 million of whom may visit the U.S. pavilion. The event coincides with the UAE’s 50th founding anniversary.

Image of U.S. Dubai pavillion Courtesy of state.gov

The theme of Expo 2020 Dubai is Connecting Minds, Creating the Future, representing the potential of what can be achieved when meaningful collaborations and partnerships are forged. The Expo’s subthemes are Opportunity, Mobility, and Sustainability. The USA Pavilion will emphasize the “Mobility” sub-theme, and the pavilion’s architecture and interior design will communicate American progress, ingenuity, and innovation in social, physical, and mechanical mobility in commerce and the arts.

On June 5, 2018, the Acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs announced the Department’s intent to partner with the Big Things Group, now known as Pavilion 2020 USA, for the USA pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.

Cities and states can serve as partners for the U.S. pavilion or even bid to host a World’s Fair themselves. In 2017, the U.S. candidate to host the 2023 Expo was Minnesota. Unfortunately, the United States lost its first bid to host a World’s Fair in 40 years to Argentina (Expo 2023). The next opportunity to host an Expo will be 2027/28 or 2030.

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