Soft power and prestige: the allure of world Expos endures

With nine months to go before Expo 2020 Dubai, 'The National' explores why governments continue to spend millions on the event

Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building is illuminated during festivities marking the one-year countdown to Expo 2020, on October 20, 2019. Fireworks exploded over the glitzy Dubai skyline today, marking the one-year countdown to Expo 2020, with the city's rulers hoping the big-budget global trade fair will end with a bang, not a fizzle. / AFP / Giuseppe CACACE
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When the first World’s Fair was held in London in 1851, the invention of the telephone was still a quarter of a century away.

Today, however, vast technological leaps has meant countries can now promote themselves to an audience of millions at the touch of a button.

Yet despite our increasingly digitalised world, nations still spend tens of millions of dollars ensuring they have a strong, lasting presence at Expos - the latest of which opens in October in Dubai.

Their enduring appeal, and governments' eagerness to take part in and host the mega events despite the expense, is explained by the opportunity to gain 'soft power' currency and to define their national image to outsiders, internationally renowned experts told The National.

In several cases, not participating is more expensive in diplomatic terms than participating

“Countries still attend Expos in the age of jet travel because there is value in engaging ordinary people en masse,” Nick Cull, Professor of Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California and an authority on the history of world expositions, said.

“Expos today can be understood as part of the apparatus of soft power. Countries who host them show themselves to be in the big league and win international attention simply for putting on a show.

"Nations or corporations who participate are similarly able to assert themselves and show relevance to a theme.

“So many major innovations have been showcased at Expos — telephones, TVs, mobile phones — it is a chance for a country to show what it is doing and plans to do.

“If you are a large and influential country you need to be seen to be involved on the world stage and to keep it up. Some scholars think of this as like paying rent on your positive image.”

Simply participating in and spending on an Expo presence may gain favour with the host nation, but it is not enough to ensure success.

A truly great pavilion must have “harmony of design” that unites “the vision of an architect with that of an exhibit designer and amazing content”, Prof Cull said.

Officially, Expos are non-political events yet competition between traditional rivals has long been a feature.

During the 20th Century, rivalries between capitalist and socialist systems became a major undercurrent of World Expos, with the Soviet Union in particular putting significant effort into its showings.

This year, an increasingly confident China is set to have one of the most imposing pavilions, focusing on the nation’s history and technological innovations, with Russia also vowing to put on a “next level” display that presents the country as forward-thinking and modern.

The efforts by its rivals partially explain why Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, spent months attempting unsuccessfully to get around laws which ban public funds being used for American Expo showings.

While previously the private sector has paid for a US presence, a bankruptcy following America's Milan exhibit in 2015 has left businesses unwilling to step up this time. US participation was only secured at the last minute, when the UAE offered to pay for the US pavilion.

Prof Cull is among those who has been attempting to raise awareness of what is at stake in the US, and what would have been lost if had failed to show up in Dubai.

“It seems such a small amount of money to make it happen when so much is spent on hard power resources every day,” he said.

“Skipping Expos is a bad habit. It makes the US seem small and petty and undermines plans to host a future Expo themselves. Reputational security in the long-term means showing up and sharing a vision.”

According to organisers, more than 190 countries and territories have confirmed participation in Dubai, making it “the most inclusive and international” ever.

Saudi Arabia is set to use its presence to complement its wider efforts to promote itself as a destination for tourism and foreign investment.

India’s pavilion, which will display its space programme, is set to cost around $68m (Dh250m), a proportion of which will be paid by private donations, but smaller nations are also investing heavily.

New Zealand is expected to spend $35m (Dh128m) on its pavilion, dedicated to the Maori value of guardianship and protection known as "kaitiakitanga", while Kazakhstan has set aside $23.5m (Dh86m) for its showing, which it hopes will help with its push to attract overseas investment.

Turkmenistan has promised that visitors to its pavilion will be accompanied by virtual Akhal-Teke horses while Monaco will be represented in its own right by a mirrored exhibition space which will “replicate the sights and smells of the French Riviera”.

A contract to build the UAE’s pavilion was worth $96m (Dh353m), but for a host nation, there are far greater opportunities than for participants, according to César Corona, a Mexican-born academic who specialises in public diplomacy and World Expos.

“Countries continue to take part in Expos mainly for two reasons,” he said.

“The interest of the participating country and the interest of the host country. Host countries appreciate early confirmations of participation which helps attract more participants.

"In several cases, not participating is more expensive in diplomatic terms than participating.

“Another strong reason to participate is country promotion, which may involve informing, reinforcing or reframing public perception, building or strengthening bilateral relations, highlighting an industry, promoting tourism or using the pavilion as a backdrop for meetings with business representatives.”

Hosting Expos helped countries become “more relevant international actors,” Mr Corona said. Examples of this working were Japan in 1970, Spain in 1992 and China in 2010, he said, where there events were seen as marking major turning points in countries’ development and global image.

“Considering that the UAE has been in a period of transition for a couple of decades, I believe its government plans to use Expo 2020 in the long-term to make Dubai’s population more internationally orientated and more receptive to foreign ideas,” he added.

“Having a physical presence at Expos is still valued because they create memorable experiences through authenticity.

“Communicating with staff who travelled from their countries, observing up-close the texture of real archaeological pieces, walking into unique architectural works that will cease to endure after a few months or tasting combinations of spices for the first time creates a sense of belonging and connection with foreign cultures that the internet and virtual reality cannot yet offer.”