Keeping Perspective on America’s Jump to #1 in the Nation Brands Index

Nick Cull adds some necessary perspective on America’s surprising jump to #1 in the most recent Nation Brand Index by GfK:

It is received wisdom among those who monitor the ebb and flow of national reputations that major movements are rare. … Mostly the rankings have been surprisingly stable, with France, Germany and the United Kingdom jostling for the top slot in the leading index, the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index. Against this expectation of stability, the results of this year’s Anholt index are all the more startling. The United States has soared from the doldrums of number seven to the top spot as the most admired country in the world. The founder of the Index, Simon Anholt, attributed America’s jump to one factor: the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. However, due to the spread of categories which comprise an index rating, in order to move so dramatically the United States has had to ‘move the needle’ not only in its politics, but in the reputation of its people, culture and as a tourist destination.

But before America pops the champagne, a word of caution. It would be nice to say that America’s jump in the index (or the earlier jumps in the Pew Global survey) is the product of a massive investment in public diplomacy, but this is not the case. That investment still remains an unfulfilled election promise. In fact the ‘good news’ might yet emerge as ‘bad news’, as it removes the urgency from the issue of PD reform. The US can not live off the reputation of its President alone. To stay at the top the USA needs to both invest in and to reform its public diplomacy, to address the prominence of the military in the delivery of the ‘brand America’ experience and create a workable inter-agency mechanism. Whether she speaks for the ‘top nation’ or not , Under Secretary Judith McHale still has a massive challenge ahead.

I agree with Nick. I am fairly certain that McHale and her boss won’t seriously laud the rise, even if they do highlight it in public. I do hope some within the public diplomacy apparatus doesn’t think they are a big cause of the movement.

I echo Nick’s concern that this ‘good news’ will remove the urgency, but I sincerely believe it won’t. In part because there remains too little urgency in the first place, regardless of the current debates in Congress over Defense spending and leadership in global engagement. It’s important to keep in mind that the Defense appropriators and authorizers are not actively working with the appropriators and authorizers for State. In other words, reducing the “prominence of the military in the delivery of the ‘brand America’ experience” is simply that: reducing the military without increasing State (at least not as of this writing). I am certain, however, that few in Congress will see this as a metric of success and suggest slowing down planned expansion of public diplomacy. Wait, there is no serious planned expansion of PD, never mind….

Imagine if the White House and State had not failed to capitalize on the engagement opportunities afforded by our charismatic leaders over this past year.

4 thoughts on “Keeping Perspective on America’s Jump to #1 in the Nation Brands Index

  1. I entirely agree, and always have done. Everything depends on the credibility of the messenger – people who have decided they like you like what you do, and people who have decided they don’t, won’t. That can’t really be altered. You can only affect things at the margins, and it’s questionable whether the return really justifies the investment. “Nationbranding” and “Goodwill building” are for developing countries, places without images, not familiar monsters like the USA.I don’t think the needle could ever move down again so quickly for the US. The needle can move sharply down in a case like Denmark and the infamous cartoons, because the country had a very simple image in most countries – a “nation brand”, in fact – and the one new thing that Muslim people then learned about Denmark (a country that wishes to insult our Prophet) effectively outweighed everything they previously knew or cared about it.
    America has behaved infinitely more provocatively towards infinitely more people for infinitely longer than Denmark, and yet because its image is rich and complex and contradictory, just as a national image should be, it suffers far less damage. I don’t believe that America, try as it might, could really sink much below seventh in my index – which is where GWB managed to hold it for several years.
    So how did it manage to rise up so quickly this year? For me, there is only one explanation for this phenomenon: it must be that First is in fact America’s natural position in the NBI, and, like most nations and their images, it is tied to this position by a piece of very strong prejudicial elastic. It just so happens that since 2005 (and no doubt before, but 2005 was when I started running the NBI), a particularly dark phase of America’s international relations has held it in an unnaturally low position. The arrival of President Obama – or, more accurately, the American electorate’s decision to vote in President Obama – served to release that strong elastic,and ‘Brand America’ has simply snapped back into its accustomed place as the world’s most admired country. Interestingly, since the survey was launched,it has never departed from that position in the eyes of the Muslim respondents in the NBI.

  2. Thanks for the cross-posting Matt. I can see a couple of further problems here. 1) What will the world think if America doesn’t cooperate with their favorite leader? The extremity of the health care debate does not bode well. 2) Given the correlation between strength and public suspicion, the jump of the US to the top spot may be (ironically) an indicator of American weakness. The US isn’t really intimidating anyone at the moment (beyond the Af/Pak region). The Afghan War is clearly going badly and the US has its share of economic difficulties.We have seen these poll spikes before when a new political face spoke wonderfully and America seemed diminished by both strategic and economic setbacks: 1961 and Kennedy? Perhaps, but I’m thinking of 1977. This is unfolding like a re-run of the world falling in love with Jimmy Carter, and we know how that one ends if words are unmatched by action.

  3. Simon,Aside from the fact that the health care debate has quieted down some, it is really a lot of just so much catfighting. At the end of the day, there is going to be reform and the republic will stand.
    My experience in dealing with foreign perceptions of America is that people from many less than democratic countries look at things like the health care debate and say that they only wish they could have such open political debate on critical matters of domestic policy in their country.

  4. Useful exchange. But Simon, be careful about falling victim to an American stereotype: ahistoricity. Denmark may be small and quiet and lots of other good things nowadays, but it has been around for a lot longer than the USA, and has a much longer history of behaving “provocatively” towards more people than the USA. Like constant assaults (rape as a weapon of war?) and invasions of the British Isles for hundreds of years. Like its colonial hold of Greenland. Like its long complicity in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Maybe we Americans can learn something about coming to terms with a violent history such as that of the the Danes. Maybe, also, that was one of Shakespeare’s motives for setting Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, where he did.

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