What Makes a Country “Good” According to the Rest of the World?

Simon Anholt, independent policy advisor and author of The Good Country Equation: How We Can Repair the World in One Generation.

As part of the Mid Month Public Diplomacy Forum series, the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy (CCLP) welcomed Simon Anholt for a discussion on his new book, The Good Country Equation: How We Can Repair the World in One Generation. The recent publication chronicles Anholt’s career as a policy analyst and advisor, offering key insights gained from decades of researching foreign public opinion. He has advised over fifty governments around the world on how they can engage “more productively and imaginatively with the international community.”

Sponsored by CCLP, The Public Diplomacy Council, and the Public Diplomacy Association of America, the event was hosted by CCLP Director of Washington Programs Adam Powell III. Attendees were introduced to Anholt by his longtime colleague, Nick Cull, a Global Policy Fellow at CCLP. 

Anholt first became interested in the idea of “country image,” or how a nation is perceived internationally, in the late nineties when he wrote a paper on its importance in an increasingly globalized world. At the time, the concept of image was widely regarded as a trivial subject. However, Anholt’s findings supported the idea that the reputation of countries come with significant impacts and are “not a superficial matter at all.” As Anholt explained, they can be drivers of global inequality.

“Poor countries not only have to cope with weak infrastructure, weak institutions, and weak economies; they also have to constantly battle against the headwinds of a negative reputation,” Anholt remarked, adding, “And that drives countries apart.” He pointed out that countries with positive reputations, on the other hand, enjoy a plethora of benefits, such as an increased flow of trade, tourism, and talent. 

Over the next twenty years, the subject of image gained more relevance in publications both academic and mainstream. Anholt continued noting its importance to international relations, observing in his work that “A country’s population is more likely to support its government aligning itself to another country if that other country has a good, positive image.” Conversely, “If the other country is unheard of or has a negative image, then leaders know they can get away with not supporting that country.” 

As the relevance of the subject grew, so did the market for governments who wanted to address their international image. Wondering if a nation’s reputation can be improved or more closely matched to reality, Anholt released the first edition of The Nation Brands Index in 2005. The study is still published annually, but is now called The Anholt IPSOS Nation Brands Index. 

The index involves 20,000 to 38,000 interviews and spans 20 to 38 countries around the world. Each participant answers a detailed questionnaire about approximately 50 other countries.

“I sometimes call it the Index of Ignorance because it’s very clear from looking at the results that people don’t know very much about other countries,” quipped Anholt. Nevertheless, “Their perceptions are very important because they drive behaviors as potential consumers, tourists, talent, migrants… Anything you can think of will be affected by people’s perceptions of countries in a globalized world, whether they are true or false.”

In 2012, Anholt was notified that this research had become the third largest social survey ever conducted. With more than a billion data points, he began analyzing responses to find out what makes one country more admired than another. To his dismay, it appeared that no matter how much money or effort a country dedicated to improving its image, results were more or less unchanged from year to year. “I realized I created the world’s most boring survey,” he joked.

What truly matters, as Anholt discovered, is not how well a country is doing, but rather how much that country is doing. In other words, a country that contributes more positively to the world beyond its territory, benefitting not only its citizens but humanity as a whole, will have a more positive reputation. This revelation explained why massive dedication to “branding” was “spectacularly unsuccessful.”

This inspired Anholt to launch the Good Country Index in 2014, observing reality rather than perception. Its official goal is to “measure what each country on earth contributes to the common good of humanity and the planet.” Looking at the challenges the world is facing today, from the COVID-19 pandemic to abuses of human rights, Anholt sees an urgent need to change international attitudes from “fundamentally competitive to fundamentally collaborative.”