The Most Popular Country in the World

Nations are often spoken of as if they were individuals: Russia and Ukraine are fighting, China says Japan should stay out of its territorial waters, Iran is unfriendly to Americans. A lot of this comes down to basic expediency: it is a lot easier to refer to countries as monolithic entities than to get into the specifics (“Brazil says” rather than “the Brazilian government says”, for example).

But countries have long been personified for reasons other than simple ease. Everything that they embody — their political institutions, culture, people, climate, geography, etc. — amounts to a cohesive identity or national character of sorts. And countries, like individuals, can be loved, hatred, admired, and in some way or another related with. (Within International Relations, we study the phenomenon of “nations as persons” and whether it has any legitimacy or basis.)

They even have to worry about social standing: just as we worry about our image and status among a community of people, so too do the countries of the world content with how they are perceived by the international community. Hence why governments engage in public relations — whether through formal diplomatic channels, the funding of cultural institutions, or the launching of state news broadcasters — and why things like the Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index exist.

Spearheading the fascinating world of nation branding — which has only become more relevant in our increasingly globalized and interconnected world — the survey asks over 20,000 people across 20 countries their perceptions of 50 countries. Each nation is scored on factors ranging from exports and governance to culture and people.

As The Atlantic reported, five-year first-place winner America has been overtaken by Germany, which had previously occupied the top spot in 2008. Here is the top ten as of 2014:

1. Germany

2. United States

3. United Kingdom

4. France

5. Canada

6. Japan

7. Italy

8. Switzerland

9. Australia

10. Sweden

Interestingly, the top ten has not changed much since 2010, which was as far back as I could find data (the survey was launched in 2005). The same countries more or less occupy the same spots, rising or falling by only a point or two (but never falling off entirely).

You can read the methodology of the report here. According to an official press release, Germany’s burgeoning international image can be attributed to several factors, including — of all things — “sport excellence”, which was “the largest gain seen this year for any single attribute across the 50 measured nations”.

Simon Anholt, an independent policy advisor, explains, “Germany appears to have benefited not only from the sports prowess it displayed on the world stage at the FIFA World Cup championship, but also by solidifying its perceived leadership in Europe through a robust economy and steady political stewardship. Germany’s score gains in the areas of ‘honest and competent government’, ‘investment climate’, and ‘social equality’ are among the largest it achieved across all the aspects covered by the NBI 2014 survey.”

In contrast, the USA has shown the least impressive NBI gain among the developed nations. While it still is seen as number one in several areas, including creativity, contemporary culture, and educational institutions, its role in global peace and security only ranks 19th out of 50 nations.

Meanwhile, here is why the U.S. (as well as nascent rival Russia) fared less well this time around.

Xiaoyan Zhao, Senior Vice President and Director of NBI at GfK, comments, “In a year of various international confrontations, the United States has lost significant ground where tension has been felt the most acutely. Both Russia and Egypt have downgraded the U.S. in an unprecedented manner, particularly in their perception of American commitment to global peace and security, and in their assessment of the competence of the U.S. government.  However, on a global level, it is Russia that has received the strongest criticism from public opinion.”

In previous years, Russia had shown upward momentum – but in the 2014 NBI study, it stands out as the only nation out of 50 to suffer a precipitous drop. Russia’s largest decline is registered on the Governance dimension, especially for the attribute of its perceived role in international peace and security. This is the most drastic score drop seen for any single attribute across the 50 nations. Overall in this year’s study, Russia has slipped three places to 25th, overtaken by Argentina, China, and Singapore.

The two countries cannot seem to shake off their legacy of global meddling and the subsequent negative impact it is having on their international standing, although Russia seems worse affected by it than America; subsequently, I am curious about the national breakdown of the respondents and how much certain nationalities dragged down or pulled up the overall score for certain countries.

In any case, the U.S. is hardly in bad shape, all things considered, and much of that clearly has to do with the heft of its “soft power” — from its music and entertainment media (especially film), to its top-notch universities still-attractive (if not weakening) civil values, America projects a lot of influenced and a positive image around the world. It is little wonder that so many other countries, including China, are seeking to emulate this soft power approach by promoting cultural and ideological products.

I would wager that the rest of the top ten ranks highly for similar reasons: all of them either have strong, globally-exported cultures (especially the U.K., France, and Italy), or enjoy a reputation for good governance, high-quality of life, and benign foreign policy (Australia, Canada, Sweden, and Switzerland).

In any case, Germany’s status as a brand champion is hardly surprising, all things considered. From its robust (if still shaky) economy and (relatively) pacifistic foreign policy, to policies like free college tuition and strong arts funding, the country has a lot going for it across different sectors. Its well-trained workers and less-indebted homeowners seem better off and happier than counterparts elsewhere in the world, and while political cynicism is as high among the German populace as it is anywhere else in the post-recession world, national pride — and with it a sense of purpose as a global role model — is growing (albeit with a degree of restraint, given the lingering shadow of the early to mid-20th century).

In the end, countries — again, like people — can learn a lot from one another with respect to national performance, be it in the real of politics and economics or even in sports. Not only is excelling in these areas a valuable end in itself, but as the study’s press release observes:

“International diplomacy clearly reaches beyond the realm of public opinion – however, policy makers need to be keenly aware that the way in which a country is perceived globally can make a critical difference to the success of its business, trade and tourism efforts, as well as its diplomatic and cultural relations with other nations. As our partner Simon Anholt often says, the only superpower left in today’s world is global public opinion.”

What are your thoughts?

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