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e still have those?!” a congressional staffer

remarked incredulously when I men-

tioned my recent trip to the world’s fair in

Milan. For many American foreign affairs

practitioners, world’s fairs, also known as

international expositions, are quaint 20th century relics of little

21st-century value. However, while the United States has been

cutting back on its participation in recent decades—missing the 2000 fair altogether—the rest of the world has gotten increasingl


involved. For those who have never been to a fair, it’s like Epcot on

steroids, albeit with diplomats and pavilions focused on current

global challenges.

The world’s fair has evolved from an industrial exposition into

a public diplomacy platform. At a time when American leader-

World’s Fairs Today

A Visit to Milan,

Lessons for Dubai

The world’s fair has evolved from an

industrial exposition into the Olympics of

public diplomacy, and the United States

should be there.


Matthew Asada is a career Foreign Service officer on a

public diplomacy assignment in NewDelhi. He served as

AFSA State vice president from 2013 to 2015. His previ-

ous assignments are Kolkata, Kunduz, Lahore, Munich

andWashington, D.C., including a year as an American

Political Science Association congressional fellow. The views expressed

in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the Department of

State or the U.S. government.

ship and commitment are in question, and American values,

such as economic opportunity and democracy, are under attack,

the United States needs to be present at these fairs—the Olympic

games of public diplomacy.

Most millennials have never visited a world’s fair. My first expe-

rience was to the Daejeon Expo in 1993. Seven years later, I visited

the 2000 fair in Hanover while an intern at Consulate General

Frankfurt. I have visited every major world’s fair since: Aichi 2005;

Shanghai 2010; and Milan 2015. The absence of a U.S. pavilion in

Hanover and my subsequent expo visits have impressed upon me

the importance of these events and our continued participation in


History of the World’s Fair

The first generally recognized world’s fair was held in London

in 1851. Cities vied to host the fair as a matter of prestige, branding

and economic development; participating countries built archi-

tecturally stunning pavilions to display their latest technological

and cultural innovations. Notable fairs include Philadelphia 1876,

Chicago 1893 and 1933, Paris 1900, Barcelona 1929, New York City

1939 and 1964-1965, and Osaka 1970. Each fair left behind iconic

architecture, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Space Needle in

Seattle and the Unisphere in New York City.