Our annual survey of the nations that have mastered the gentle art of making friends and influencing people.
After more than a year of isolationist introspection, diplomats gradually returned to the rough and tumble of international relations in 2021. And alongside the usual geopolitical tensions in their in-trays were deep existential problems, such as future pandemics and climate change.
Though the current pandemic is not over, its grip on our freedoms has been loosened and the scientific and political mobilisations that it engendered offer a salutary reminder of human resourcefulness under pressure. The rapid development of coronavirus vaccines hopefully augurs the kind of lightning-quick innovation that might help the world avert climate disaster. It also shows how intellectual property and medical resources might be shared. When it came to the rollout, countries you’d have expected to knock it out of the park (Japan, New Zealand, Germany) struggled, while those that had handled other aspects of the pandemic poorly (the US and UK) surged ahead. But by the end of 2021, the main differences were between rich and poor. As Chris Smith of the University of Cambridge explains, countries willing to share patents and donate vaccines will no doubt have had an eye on soft power. Given all this, we’ve included the number of vaccines donated to global distribution initiative Covax, and money pledged to the UN’s Green Climate Fund among the metrics we have used to judge this year’s runners and riders.
Then there’s the less existential but still essential stuff. Pandemic-induced immurement led to a boom for content providers. Countries such as France, as Mary Fitzgerald notes, spotted the opportunity to shape the narrative about themselves through TV shows and other forms of culture. But many technology firms whose profits surged as their services became indispensable drew resentment.
Last year’s survey came with a caveat: “It’s been a hard year…” In terms of difficulty, 2021 wouldn’t rate much lower but it is at least ending on a more positive note: at the time of writing, Christmas has yet to be cancelled. Of course, occasional soul-searching can reap rewards and the hope is that all of that time indoors has made countries appreciate the things that they have, as well as what they admire in others.
Since its bounceback from the pandemic, Italians have been winning hearts and minds on all fronts.
There was a moment last summer when Italians thought that they would win everything. Having triumphed at Eurovision with svelte rockers Måneskin, claimed victory in football’s Euro 2020 and struck gold in the 100m sprint and 4x100m relay in Tokyo, Italians assumed that it would be Wimbledon next – and after that the moon. The top spot in our survey is surely the next best thing.
The country had plenty to be smug about. Despite becoming Europe’s first coronavirus hotspot in 2020, its much-maligned government soon got on top of the emergency. Italy has implemented one of the world’s strictest vaccine-passport systems to much controversy but it appears to be working to keep cases down. To the surprise of those who portray Italians as rule-averse, a population scarred by the terrifying first wave has been largely observant of mask mandates and containment measures – a reminder of how much this nation believes in the power of community.
The Bel Paese might not have been as keen as its tourism rivals in the Med, Greece and Spain, to drop travel restrictions and let visitors in but you couldn’t tell at the bagni, where sunloungers were booked up all the way down the country. By successfully staging comeback editions of the Venice Biennale of Architecture and Milan’s much-missed Salone del Mobile, Italy proved that it remains the most credible global meeting point for the design industry.
Its political class, however, isn’t as dependable. In February, Mario Draghi became head of a ramshackle coalition – the country’s third prime minister in six years. Continuous petty crises undermine Italy’s trustworthiness, as do news of mafia mega-trials. Nonetheless, with its soft-power riches accumulated over the course of centuries, from culture to cuisine, Italy can always count on the world’s affection, even when it’s a bit too self-satisfied for its own good.
World Heritage Sites: 58
2020 Olympic medals: 40
Good: Celebrated since antiquity for its culture, cuisine, architecture and design, Italy has made an art of its way of life, winning the world’s swooning admiration.
Bad: On the flipside of this idyllic image that the country projects are corruption and a sclerotic bureaucracy, which continue to undermine its global reputation.
Half of the world’s population has been vaccinated against coronavirus. This is nothing short of miraculous; it was as recently as December 2020 that a British woman made history as the first member of the public to be jabbed.
But the global data reveals a less rosy picture. Less than 1 per cent of those in poorer countries have been vaccinated. This, the who claims, is prolonging the pandemic. “If there’s Covid anywhere, there’s Covid everywhere,” said Melinda Gates in 2020.
The silver lining, as many countries have realised, is that this situation has made vaccine diplomacy a major soft-power mechanism. Protecting a population from coronavirus offers nations a pathway to economic stability and recovery, so providing vaccines to cash-poor (but often resource-rich) countries gives the donor the opportunity to reward old friends and make new ones.
Serbia, home to two Confucius Institutes (Chinese-funded cultural promotion organisations), was one of the earliest recipients of Chinese vaccines. Recently it laid the foundation stone for a new Sinopharm factory outside Belgrade. Unlike its Balkan neighbours, the country is now awash with vaccines. Was this Chinese goodwill, or a way to rub the EU up the wrong way? Europe, meanwhile, is dishing out vaccines to other jab-starved Balkan nations to counter the Russian influence won with Sputnik V vaccines.
Some vaccination offers come with strings attached. China’s donations to Honduras were allegedly accompanied by the expectation that the latter would drop its recognition of Taiwan’s autonomy; Ukraine found itself pressured to overlook Chinese treatment of certain minority groups. Japanese and US donations to Taiwan, on the other hand, were met with accusations of meddling from Beijing. “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Winston Churchill counselled. Many nations have evidently risen to that challenge.
Trump might be gone but the global superpower remains riven with internal divisions.
The pandemic showed the world the best and worst of the US. The rapid development of vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna attested to the country’s capacity for large-scale innovation, validating its free-market approach to drug patents. Yet nearly everything else laid bare the country’s shortcomings. Its decentralised political system couldn’t easily co-ordinate to solve national problems, creating an incoherent patchwork of local rules that didn’t always align with federal policies. While large numbers of Americans refused freely available vaccines, their government did little to move surplus doses (or the technology necessary to produce new ones) to needier populations overseas. After a 20th century in which the US exported cutting-edge science, it is today being hobbled by a mix of rabid anti-intellectualism and insular nationalism.
A world that looked forward to Donald Trump’s departure has found that not enough has changed with Joe Biden in the White House. Fierce internal divisions have paralysed his administration’s ability to act globally, especially on climate issues, and fights over the legitimacy of the 2020 election undermine Washington’s efforts to promote democracy worldwide.
If there is any point of domestic unanimity, it is cynicism towards the technology giants and their unaccountable power. Just a decade or so ago, Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter were the great American soft-power success stories whose communication tools empowered people worldwide. Now we’re less likely to think of the Twitter user in Tahrir Square than the Burmese genocidaires using Facebook to spread hate. When it comes to US global influence, it doesn’t matter how many blockbuster movies, pop hits or basketball highlights course through its networks as long as Silicon Valley is viewed as a machine shop for the world’s demagogues and tyrants.
Covax donations: €3bn
Top-100 companies: 58
Good: The land of free enterprise remains a world leader in technological innovation. Its creative industries are also still a powerful, persuasive force.
Bad: Increasing numbers now believe that some of those innovators amassed such incredible wealth by avoiding taxes, and stoking division and hatred.
For China’s ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy, 2021 was a year of multiple failures.
For a country that has spent a fortune building a global media network, distributing piles of newspapers around the world, broadcasting in most languages and tweeting like there’s no tomorrow, China has got very little bang for its buck.
Its “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, named after a nationalistic action film in which Chinese heroes thrash their American adversaries, has been a disaster. China’s diplomats, once reasonably well behaved, have indulged in snarling invective against their host countries. In France, for example, the ambassador was rebuked after his embassy’s website claimed that the staff of a French care home had “abandoned their posts overnight, leaving their residents to die of hunger”.
In the early days of the pandemic, China tried to build a reputation for generosity by funding vaccination programmes in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. But there were two problems: Chinese vaccines were found to be less effective than Western ones and their swift creation served as a reminder of the origins of the pandemic. Today, Beijing claims that its low coronavirus death rate demonstrates the superiority of its political system over shambolic liberal democracies. The system has its merits but any good impression was cancelled out in 2021 by the crushing of Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations and continued reports of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
One insight into China’s continuing soft-power efforts came with the closing down of thousands of fake social media accounts, many of which had been dedicated to amplifying the messages of loyal Communist Party servants such as Liu Xiaoming, former ambassador to the UK. A closer examination of his followers reveals that few of them have any of their own. The sound of one hand clapping as bots applaud themselves is testament to a year of a nation’s flagging soft-power success.
Glory days are here – so who’s complaining?
Denmark has never before enjoyed such soft power. Another Round (called Druk in Danish) won the best foreign-language film Oscar. Its national football team reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020, at which Christian Eriksen’s collapse and recovery captured people’s imagination worldwide. Copenhagen’s Noma won its third Michelin star and topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list; second place went to another Copenhagen three-star, Geranium.
The economy is bouncing back better from coronavirus disruptions than just about any other European nation. Denmark also had one of the world’s most effective responses to the pandemic.
None of this has stopped them complaining – about, say, prime minister Mette Frederiksen’s autocratic approach. Then again, if there had been Danes present at the parting of the Red Sea, they would probably have complained about Moses’s lack of accountability. Danes have never had it so good and never been as good at telling the world how good they have it.
Fully vaccinated: 75 per cent
Embassies abroad: 71
Good: Danish restaurants and film-makers are riding high, receiving more well-deserved attention than ever. Its pandemic response might have been the world’s best.
Bad: While by no means representative of the country as a whole, xenophobic political parties are giving off a negative international image.
Despite a few false steps, the country is exporting fresh, modern takes on the Gallic way of life.
France has long been selling the world on its way of life, even if it increasingly struggles to define what that is at home. Emmanuel Macron’s election in 2017 sent French soft power soaring; the youthful president always seemed to impress more abroad – but as the end of his first term approaches, the picture is rather mixed in L’Hexagone. Much foreign reporting focuses on how he has taken a more reactionary turn as he considers the realities of re-election in 2022 with the far-right snapping at his heels. That has dulled his much-vaunted savoir-faire – as has the fact that social media has extended the reach of bitter domestic debates about identity and immigration far beyond France.
Many were surprised to discover that the birthplace of Louis Pasteur has one of the world’s most vaccine-sceptical populations. It was only when Macron told the French that they couldn’t go to restaurants or cafés without getting jabbed that many got vaccinated.
France’s geopolitical standing took a knock when Australia cancelled a $60bn (€52bn) submarine deal in favour of closer ties with the US and the UK, prompting Paris to recall its ambassadors from both Canberra and Washington. A decision to greatly reduce visas for Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians following a spat over returning migrants to those countries strained relations with the Maghreb, as did ill-judged remarks by Macron on France’s colonial past in Algeria.
But it hasn’t all been challenges and missteps for France in 2021. In recent years, the international success of French streaming series – among them The Bureau, Call My Agent! and Lupin – has helped to burnish the image of modern France. Macron sees opportunity here and this year promised substantial investment to help the film and TV industry compete with Netflix and Amazon as part of a bold new plan to make the country “a nation of innovation”.
UN climate fund: €1.2bn paid
Nobel laureates: 69
Good: Paris remains the global centre of sartorial design, even if the money is moving east. As Europe changes, France has an opportunity to reinvent itself.
Bad: The 2022 presidential election portends a fractious few months. As per tradition, the far right will make plenty of noise. Macron must resist a descent to its level.
A nation built on stability braces for an era of change.
It’s perhaps a sign of how much stability means to Germany that Angela Merkel introduced her presumed successor, Olaf Scholz, to other world leaders during October’s g20 summit, despite the fact that he was from a different party and hadn’t even been crowned chancellor yet.
Despite such efforts to project continuity, stability and Mutti are inextricably linked. So much of Germany’s recent soft power has been wrapped in her gravitas that it’s hard not to see the country’s influence taking a hit with her retirement. Added to this is the unstable nature of the federal election result, which forced three parties from across the political spectrum to consider a rare coalition. A post-Merkel government could prove less stable – and so less decisive – in its global dealings.
The pandemic exposed cracks in Germany’s social cohesion, with a patchwork of state regulations causing disarray. Parts of the former East Germany in particular have posted low rates of vaccination.
Germany’s major companies face a less-assured future as they pull back from Chinese interests and retool to combat climate change. Tesla’s Gigafactory near Berlin, on the home turf of car manufacturers, might just be the wake-up call that German industry needs to once again set a global example.
Covax donations: €832m
World Heritage Sites: 51
Good: Germany has taken a high moral stand against Chinese actions in Xinjiang. Its reputation for stability is matched by one of moral consistency.
Bad: Outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel’s departure from the world stage will be a significant loss to pragmatic multilateralism and the rules-based international order.
How to hold a summit
Hosting a successful summit requires good taste, sensitivity and a sharp eye for details.
In the 1990s, Jon Allen, who later served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel and Spain, was tasked with overseeing a summit between Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo and Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien. Its centrepiece was a silver-service breakfast intended to showcase the best of Canadian cuisine and hospitality. But come the hour, it became clear that an error had occurred. Instead of an à la carte banquet, there was an all-you-can-eat buffet, the sort of spread you’d more likely find at a service station than at a meeting between world leaders.
“There were a lot of surprised looks,” says Allen, now a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “But these things happen and sometimes they’re good for conversation. In the case of the Mexican president, [the response] was less than positive,” he says, laughing.
For a country hosting a summit, details matter, both to the success of the event itself and to the host’s soft-power standing. “There are so many things to consider,” says Andrea Insch, an associate professor at New Zealand’s Otago University, who researches summits. “They can be powerful mechanisms to raise a place’s profile.”
Every detail can leave an impression. At the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, 80 per cent of the food served was sourced in Scotland; the meals on the menus were accompanied not by calorie counts but by carbon footprints.
“There are so many things to consider. They are powerful mechanisms to raise a place’s profile”
The media centre for the 2018 G7 summit in Québec City showcased equipment created in Montréal, one of Canada’s technology hubs; journalists were given packs of postcards designed by indigenous artists that could be sent anywhere, postage paid. At the 2020 event in the UK county of Cornwall, the conference tables used for leaders’ meetings were made from Cornish wood by local furniture-maker Scott Woyka.
Yet there’s a fine line between thoughtfulness and gimmickry. At the first meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore, the commemorative coffee cups, water bottles and notepads offered to attendees looked more like trinkets you’d find at a tourist attraction than those at a major diplomatic event.
Getting the right tone can’t be taken for granted. “In all foreign policy, it’s events that really drive agendas,” says Allen. “It’s important that leaders meet face to face. And the setting can help.”
The peaceable nation remains an exceptional host, even as it clashes with the EU.
Switzerland’s diplomatic skills were tested on a number of occasions this year. After tough negotiations with the EU over their political and economic relationship, Switzerland decided to pull the plug. The EU reacted with disdain; now that the UK has gone, the 26 cantons have filled its shoes to become the bloc’s defiant little island, albeit one that is landlocked.
Exports of goods have returned to pre-pandemic levels, with demand for Swiss watches higher than before the pandemic hit. Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin were each given one of those famously reliable timepieces when they met for their first face-to-face meeting as presidents in Geneva in June. That summit reminded the world of Switzerland’s supreme hosting skills. The federal governor told diplomats, “Welcome to the city of peace.” With Zürich hosting a surprise meeting between the foreign ministers of the US and China, Switzerland’s neutrality was once again a hard-to-beat selling point.
The Swiss can look back at a relatively successful year in diplomacy. The tense relationship with the EU notwithstanding, those two summits and its solid tackling of the pandemic still place its star higher than most countries of a similar size. Its candidature for a mandate in the UN security council for 2023 and 2024 is well under way, highlighting its good standing worldwide.
Even though its number of vaccinations remains low compared to that of other western European countries, Switzerland managed to keep its residents happy and its restrictions to a minimum. The hard lockdowns in neighbouring countries were in sharp contrast to the mostly gentle nudges by the Swiss authorities. And judging by the few empty shopfronts and low unemployment rate, this tactic seems to have worked rather well. Switzerland is once again looking towards a bright diplomatic future.
Top-100 companies: 3(but there’s also Roger Federer, the sporting gift who keeps on giving)
Visa-free travel: 190countries
Good: Switzerland has maintained its crucial role as a land of peace and diplomacy. It remains the go-to host for international bodies and summits.
Bad: The country’s increasing friction with the EU could lead to economic and political recriminations, potentially harming its much-vaunted neutrality.
The Land of the Rising Sun’s unique culture is loved across the world.
Japanese culture remains a potent force. Tokyo collective Teamlab is making some of the most exciting digital art available: epic digital waterfalls, animals and flowers that move and morph. Cities clamour to host Teamlab’s shows; its best-known project, Borderless, in Tokyo’s Odaiba district, is also the world’s most visited museum (2.2 million visitors in 2019).
Haruki Murakami might have missed out (again) on the Nobel prize for literature but Japan’s female novelists have never been more widely read – the likes of Mieko Kawakami, Sayaka Murata and Natsuko Imamura already sell in big numbers in Japan and are now doing so in translation.
The country’s top-tier architects are building all over the globe and its chefs are everywhere. Japanese bakers, once preoccupied with sliced white, are now masters of everything from pâtisserie to sourdough and have opened outposts internationally. Japan continues to bring something fresh and the world is happy to lap it up.
Covax donations: €821m
UN climate fund: €1.3bnpaid
Good: Alongside its bountiful cultural offerings, the world’s third-largest economy boasts engineering and mobility giants that are skilled in winning friends and contracts.
Bad: As the sexism scandals surrounding the Tokyo Olympics underscored, Japan still has some catching up to do when it comes to promoting women.
Despite problems at home, the North American country is respected on the world stage.
Canada has had a difficult year. Reckonings for the historic mistreatment of its indigenous population, the effect of climate change in record-breaking heatwaves and wildfires, and the pandemic’s ongoing pressures brought deep introspection. Prime minister Justin Trudeau compounded his slide in popularity by calling an election that many Canadians considered unnecessary.
But the success of the country’s vaccination programme (after early stumbles) and the emergency economic measures put in place to deal with coronavirus received praise, and Trudeau still impresses on the world stage even if he has lost fans at home.
Canada’s green economy is booming. Electric bus manufacturer NewFlyer exports zero-carbon vehicles all over the world and Harbour Air, North America’s largest commercial seaplane company, completed the first test flight of a fully battery-powered aircraft in 2021.
It has been a good year for Canada’s cultural exports too: superstar rapper Drake’s latest album, Certified Lover Boy, is one of the most-streamed albums of 2021, while The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes kept us dancing through lockdown. Children’s TV programmes such as Paw Patrol, produced in Toronto, remain hugely popular worldwide. Sports success saw 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez’s ascent to the US Open final against (Toronto-born) Emma Raducanu and Olympic golds for sprinter Andre De Grasse and Canada’s national women’s football team in Tokyo. Preparations are under way for the 2026 Fifa World Cup, which Canada will co-host with the US and Mexico.
Another formidable female Canadian is the new governor-general Mary Simon, the first indigenous person to be appointed to the role. This could set the tone for Canada’s soft power this year: despite turbulence at home, the North American giant is ready to lead as an exemplary middle-sized power.
Fully vaccinated: 74 per cent
2020 Olympic medals: 24
Good: Migration has been well managed for years. Canada has long exported the image of itself as caring and adaptable – a sensible, more progressive cousin of the US.
Bad: Trudeau seemed to have more purpose when Donald Trump was US president. Without such an obvious counterpoint, his own gaffes are now under more scrutiny.
Britain’s post-imperial cultural reach continues to shorten.
The UK’s pre-eminent soft-power assets of music, design, art and actors once served as checks on its waning hard power. Today, British musicians such as Ed Sheeran, Dua Lipa and Adele continue to top international charts but it’s hard to imagine that their legacies will endure. Even James Bond is having second thoughts.
Then, of course, there’s the B word: not Brexit but Boris. Much has been made of Johnson’s election-winning prowess but beyond British shores, his bumbling Wodehousian shtick falls flat.
And then there is Brexit. Although most Britons (whether for or against it) will have been slightly relieved when the Brexit transition period ended on 1 January 2021, on the world stage, from Hong Kong to Kabul, it hasn’t been hard to spot signs of the country’s diminished status.
Perhaps the best that the UK can hope for post-Brexit is a similar position to Switzerland: a dependable economic partner and host of summits. To this end, its (at time of writing) fairly successful organisation of Cop26 should help. But the likelihood of the former imperial hegemon pursuing Swiss-style political neutrality is a long way off. Unsure of itself at home, the island nation is at risk of losing influence abroad.
Nobel laureates: 131
2020 Olympic medals: 65
Good: Despite its diminished reputation, the country remains globally minded, with secure bonds with Anglosphere nations such as the US and Australia.
Bad: Boris Johnson. Beyond the UK’s shores, his boosterism simply seems daft. That’s not to mention the ongoing tensions with the EU related to Brexit.
The modern state is enjoying an artistic renaissance – and there’s plenty of past to mine.
Modern Greece’s bicentennial celebrations might have been dampened by the pandemic but that hasn’t put a stopper on the country’s blooming cultural revival. In the capital, two major contemporary art spaces have opened: the poetically (and suitably) named Former Public Tobacco Factory and the Museum of Contemporary Art (emst), which is housed in what was once the brewery of Fix beer.
As a fifth of Greece’s economy relies on tourism, the country breathed a sigh of relief when 2021’s visitor numbers surpassed expectations, approaching the levels of 2019, a record year. They’re not out of the water yet but prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s move to make Greece the first EU country to introduce a coronavirus passport seems to have paid off. Now the Greek National Tourism Organisation is getting ready to push a campaign promoting the country’s winter destinations.
Greek myths continue to enchant, with an ever-growing catalogue of modern adaptations. This year, for example, saw the release of the third part in US author Scarlett St Clair’s popular Hades and Persephone series. When it comes to contemporary mythology, the country has finally put itself on the Hollywood map, with a set of production incentives introduced in 2018 beginning to pay off. This year’s credits include Knives Out 2, filmed in Mykonos and Porto Heli, and the latest in The Expendables franchise, in which the elderly action heroes gallivant around Thessaloniki.
Greece has also been investing in non-fictional defence and diplomacy. The country’s fraught relationship with neighbouring Turkey is still at the fore; Mitsotakis has prioritised strengthening relations with allies such as the US and France to counter it. In September, as part of a defence pact with the latter, the country secured six more Rafale fighter jets to bolster its position in the region.
Foreign aid budget: €323m
World Heritage Sites: 18
Good: Greece’s thriving tourism industry has long converted visitors into committed supporters, helping to remind the world of the richness of its culture.
Bad: Geography too often has had the effect of dragging the country into regional spats; its anti-migrant wall along the Turkish border is among the latest flashpoints.
Despite its poor virus strategy, Sweden has international respect.
Traditionally, Sweden has projected soft power with confidence. Last year it looked as though that confidence might have been dented by the country’s chosen pandemic strategy: no lockdown in pursuit of herd immunity, followed by recalibration when that was proven untenable.
The number of coronavirus deaths and current cases towers above its comparable Nordic neighbours but Swedish society has bounced back in line with them. The country again looks set to retain its solid soft-power credentials, underpinned by a largely egalitarian society, high levels of trust and an international reputation boosted by globally successful businesses such as Ikea, h&m and Spotify.
Unlike Norway, Sweden’s green credentials are not dented by a large petroleum sector. The country is aiming for net zero emissions by 2045 and is unusually visible in the global climate debate, thanks to young Swede Greta Thunberg.
Sweden has a considerable reputation for soft power and pursues the feminist foreign policy that it adopted in 2014. At home, though, there’s growing unease over immigration, which has been exploited by the far right. If Sweden can check this, it could soon take the top spot; incredible for a country of only 10 million.
UN climate fund: €507mpaid
Foreign aid budget: €4.5bn
Good: Sweden’s early decision to keep society open in the face of the coronavirus pandemic was seen by some as a sign that its leaders had faith in its people...
Bad: ...but it was also viewed as a case of a nation trusting too much to luck. After disastrously failing to achieve herd immunity in its population, it changed course.
Six years of stability have strengthened this nation’s hand.
In 2021, Portugal showed why it is important to be a good host – and the value of doing so when the rest of the world is not so sure about guests. The past year has seen more than 64,000 people move to the country thanks to its progressive laws, quality of life, investment opportunities and safety – Portugal currently ranks as the world’s fourth safest country, according to the Global Peace Index. It hosted international athletes as they prepared for Tokyo 2020 and this autumn more than 40,000 people descended on Lisbon to attend Web Summit, the world’s flagship technology conference.
Portugal has been flexing its soft power might for decades. It maintains close relationships with all nations across the Lusophone world – even offering vaccines and other supplies during the pandemic – and the geopolitical influence of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries continues to grow.
It’s easy to forget that not so long ago Portugal was in the middle of a major financial crisis. Six years of socialist government have helped to steer the ship in the right direction and, despite recent calls for early elections in 2022, there are many reasons for the Portuguese to be optimistic about their country’s future.
Fully vaccinated: 86 per cent
Visa-free travel: 188 countries
Good: Unlike many former colonial powers, Portugal maintains an easy relationship with its old empire, leaving it with friends across Africa.
Bad: The global success of Nando’s aside, Portuguese food culture has been a curiously slow export, despite its winning combinations of meat, seafood and spices.
Creative excellence is beyond question but can policy follow?
South Korea has been an industrial powerhouse for decades, quietly playing a part in the global supply chain for products ranging from semiconductors and container ships to cars and electronics. But the country rarely had a chance to show its fun, creative side to the world – until now.
Global attention is being paid for all the right reasons: boy band bts has topped the charts worldwide several times; Samsung has released market-leading foldable smartphones; South Korea-produced series Squid Game has become Netflix’s most viewed debut show and Seoul’s handling of the pandemic was lauded by the World Health Organization.
It’s too early to tell whether these hits will amount to a stable boost in international clout. South Korea’s creators excel in world-class entertainment but many of these global hits portray severe social ills. Technology, songs and shows only go so far. The country must also take the chance to show that it can lead in areas such as policy-making and problem-solving.
Embassies abroad: 118
Top-100 universities: 2
Good: South Korea prides itself on being one of the safest places in Asia for the international media, actively supporting journalists and organisations from abroad.
Bad: Squid Game. It is undoubtedly an excellent show but the dystopian society it portrays is perhaps not quite the image the country seeks to promote.
Leading on electric vehicles and environmental policy.
Norway has consistently punched above its weight in international diplomacy. Since the pandemic began it has already acted as a facilitator of talks between the Venezuelan government and its opposition.
Besides its reputation as a neutral player on the world stage, the most important tool in Norway’s soft-power kit is the Government Pension Fund (also known as the Oil Fund), worth more than $1.3trn (€1.1trn). The decision to disinvest in fossil fuels sends a strong signal to other global investors of the direction Norway wants to take. As the world enters the end-game of tackling climate change, the country is furthering its green credentials by proposing to triple tax on co2 by 2030.
Norway remains the electric-vehicle capital of the world: close to 80 per cent of new cars sold there are fully electric. But as a major oil and gas producer, it could do more, perhaps by following neighbour Denmark in setting an end-date for new petroleum exploration.
While the pandemic put the brakes on many traditional soft-power channels, it highlighted others. Norway topped Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking for nearly the whole of 2021 due to the way the country dealt with the virus with the least possible social and economic damage.
Embassies abroad: 90
UN climate fund: €237m paid
Good: With its aggressive position on carbon usage, Norway is setting the benchmark in terms of efforts to create a greener society (just don’t mention the oil).
Bad: Despite offering a unique aesthetic and outlook, the country is all too often outshone on the cultural and design fronts by its Nordic neighbours.
The famously forward-thinking nation has a lot to give.
The Dutch take such pride in their reputation as global leaders that they even refer to themselves as a gidsland, or guide country. Many articles have been written about what the world can learn from the Netherlands in everything from child-rearing to recycling.
But the country’s reputation as a leading liberal voice has taken a walloping recently. A scandal over false accusations of childcare fraud, in which people from ethnic backgrounds were most affected, brought down the government in 2021 and the Black Lives Matter movement has shone an unfavourable light on the Dutch Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) blackface tradition at Christmas.
The erratic response to coronavirus further tarnished the country’s reputation, with a curfew order sparking riots. There is hope for making up lost ground, though: the Dutch are global leaders in practical solutions to the most pressing environmental issues facing the world today. Their expertise in developing cycling infrastructure is in high demand as countries seek to lessen their reliance on cars, and the long history of water and flood management in the Netherlands is proving to be an invaluable export as countries across the world plan for rising water levels caused by climate change.
Foreign aid: €4.5bn
Visa-free travel: 191
Good: The egalitarian housing and urbanism of the country’s architectural and engineering firms are internationally admired for good reason.
Bad: Embarrassingly, however, it was a firm from the Netherlands that built the widely panned Marble Arch Mound in central London.
Kudos for locking the virus out has waned over time.
In 2021, Australia tested the assumption that absence makes the heart grow fonder. As most of the world tried to learn to live with coronavirus, Australia’s tactic was to lock it out – along with everything else, including many thousands of its own citizens.
The country’s early response to the pandemic won it considerable soft-power kudos, reinforcing the more admirable aspects of its national image: practical, stoical and self-sufficient. Its dip in the rankings since is due to some less commendable traits that have re-emerged in the obstinate pursuit of a policy increasingly better described as parochial, panicky and self-regarding.
The idea of Australia as a confident, gregarious, engaged nation is actually a pretty recent one. Its response to coronavirus saw the retreat into an older and, perhaps for some of its people and politicians, more comfortable identity as a remote island, largely unbothered by or with the rest of the planet.
Australia’s reputation will recover, in this regard and in others; it is generally well thought of, mostly with good reason. But to repurpose its best-known tourism slogan, the response to its re-emergence might be along the lines of: “Where the bloody hell have you been?”
2020 Olympic medals: 46
Top-100 streaming artists: 1
Good: At its best, Australia is seen as a sunny, youthful and easy-going country: a land of high wages and opportunity, where almost everyone is fit and athletic.
Bad: At its worst, it is seen as closed, grumpy and intolerant. Unless it amends its immigration and climate policies, its image could soon be irreparably damaged.
The pandemic’s winners and losers
Ben Page, CEO of Ipsos Mori, on how responses to coronavirus shaped nations’ global standing.
Just as the pandemic changed everyone’s lives, it disrupted international relations. Some countries have emerged with their status enhanced, while others have suffered blows to their reputation. According to the Anholt Ipsos Nation Brands Index, a survey of 60,000 people in 20 countries, Germany sailed through 2021 as the world’s highest-regarded country for the fifth year in a row. Its reputational strengths lie in the quality of its products and its strong governance, as well as its industriousness, sport and seriousness.
The same survey shows that the US has made up some lost ground. Memories of Donald Trump’s name-calling, enthusiasm for untested medicines and disastrous pandemic response seem to be receding. Joe Biden might be dull – but after the excitement of the Trump years, perhaps dull is good. In contrast, China remains a long way behind most Western countries; it’s far behind Belgium and Italy, for example. Its success in controlling the pandemic has not helped it make much progress.
“Joe Biden might be dull – but after the excitement of Trump, perhaps dull is good”
Though still well regarded overall, the UK’s reputation has suffered: it fell from second to fifth place globally. Positive perceptions of the nation’s contributions to fields ranging from technology to culture and education were weakened more by Brexit than the pandemic. Leaving the EU has made the UK seem less welcoming to foreigners, reducing its international approval.
The pandemic’s reputational winners have been Germany, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan. All received widespread praise for their effective initial responses to coronavirus, even if the “hermit kingdom” approach of New Zealand eventually gave way. In terms of how the g20 public regards it, liberal democracies outperformed autocracies in 2021. This should offer comfort to those who fear that the former are in retreat and that Russian or Chinese-style techno-authoritarianism is on the march.
Politicians and media stars on a world-class charm offensive.
On msnbc’s flagship show Morning Joe earlier in 2021, Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, was eager to drum up investor confidence and talk about his milestone female-majority cabinet. US audiences, beguiled by his good looks, dubbed the former basketball player the Spanish “Superman” on social media.
This was a stark contrast to 2012, when Mariano Rajoy was photographed walking down New York’s Sixth Avenue smoking a cigar at the height of Spain’s credit crunch. Sánchez’s successful stint on the morning TV circuit shows that a charming face always helps when selling your country abroad.
Spain’s other soft-power ambassadors include nouveau-flamenco singer Rosalía; chef José Andrés, a regular on US TV; and director Pedro Almodóvar, who is back on top form, having opened the Venice Film Festival with Madres Paralelas. Streaming services are giving Spanish series a leg-up; teen drama Élite and Money Heist are two of Netflix’s most-watched shows.
Valencia will shine as World Design Capital in 2022 and if tourist numbers for last summer are an indication, Spain is as attractive as ever. The country’s reliable, much-loved cast of global stars helps to put a human face on España’s unassailable vivacity.
World Heritage Sites: 49
Embassies abroad: 122
Good: Spain’s beauty, both physical and cultural, has been causing outsiders to swoon for centuries. More recently, it has emerged as a leader on progressive issues.
Bad: Why do the country’s leaders so rarely make any mark outside of the Spanish-speaking world? Pedro Sánchez could soon change that.
A standard-setting virus response needs a follow-up act.
Though initially a boon, New Zealand’s isolation is starting to jeopardise the country’s status on the global stage.
Inability to contain an outbreak of the Delta variant in August exposed the country’s lagging vaccination rates and, crucially, its lack of preparedness. An October vaxathon proved as charming as it was effective, with about 2.5 per cent of the population receiving a jab within 24 hours.
The country’s 2021 budget committed nz$300m (€185m) towards low-emission technologies but a cultural attachment to the car remains one of the biggest hurdles to becoming a global leader on climate progress.
In sport, New Zealand finished 13th on the medal table at Tokyo 2020, collecting a record total of 20 medals.
Meanwhile, a petition tabled by the Maori Party proposed switching the country’s name to the indigenous Aotearoa, and while that might not happen, the proposal reminded outside observers of the country’s relative openness to the acknowledgement of its pre-colonial identity.
But the world’s patience for watching from afar is wearing thin. New Zealand needs to find a way to allow visitors back in, because a picture is never quite the same as the real thing.
Visa-free travel: 136 countries
2020 Olympic medals: 20
Good: As well as a country blessed with stunning landscapes, it has become a sort of moral superpower that projects an image of fairness and tolerance to the world.
Bad: Its isolationism verges on the pathological, while its increasing closeness with China threatens to undermine its hard-earned moral authority.
A country with great cultural reach in the face of many problems.
Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s new book refers to his country as the “land of the happiest people on Earth”, a title that’s both satirical and literal. The country faces staggering challenges – armed violence, deeply entrenched political corruption, a sclerotic, oil-dependent economy, poverty and a ballooning population – but Nigeria punches above its weight culturally.
Nollywood, the Lagos-based film industry, made a staggering 2,599 films in 2020, compared to 441 from the much better-funded Bollywood. Nigerian film and TV is spreading to global platforms such as Netflix. Nigerian musicians including Wizkid, Tiwa Savage and Davido have global followings and frequently collaborate with US and UK superstars. Soyinka’s younger colleagues on the country’s vibrant literary scene write satire, literary fiction and sci-fi that have attracted devoted followings in the West, and Nigeria’s technology scene is hugely innovative despite heavy-handed attempts at regulation.
Fully vaccinated: 1.5 per cent
Embassies abroad: 97
Good: It is increasingly being acknowledged abroad for its astounding art, literature and film output that matches the vivacity of the nation’s youthful population.
Bad: With urban chaos in the country’s west and a full-blown insurgency in its east, Nigeria is at risk of wasting its chance of a lasting reinvention.
A country with an unequalled reputation for fun and football.
With arch-populist Jair Bolsonaro as president since 2019, Brazil’s soft-power appeal has suffered a battering in recent years. The country’s handling of coronavirus, deforestation and absurd spats with other world leaders revealed a surprising side to what had previously seemed a fun-loving nation.
But 2022 could represent the beginning of a move to get the country’s considerable cultural mojo working again. A presidential election should hopefully see an end to Bolsonaro’s divisive politics and the return of Brazil’s excellent diplomatic service – after all, mere mention of the country can still cause many people to smile.
The country’s vaccination programme is picking up, buoyed by the fact that very few Brazilians are anti-vaxxers. In other fields, Brazilian design remains well-regarded and the country is home to some incredible singers, from Anitta to Luedji Luna. Local streamers such as Globoplay have spread internationally – a great way to celebrate the country’s exciting telenovelas (steamy Verdades Secretas is an excellent place to start). And to top it all, there’s a World Cup trophy to be won in 2022, which is always a real possibility for the most famous of all footballing nations.
Visa-free travel: 171 countries
World Heritage Sites: 23
Good: Both the nation and its people spark joy worldwide, with a cultural and sporting presence that few other countries can hope to match.
Bad: Bolsonaro has stoked and unleashed his nation’s worst instincts, encouraging deforestation while making a supreme mess of the pandemic.
Indonesia’s rising star
Jonatan Christie, the pre-eminent player in Southeast Asian badminton, could go global.
Sporting stars often fly the flag for their country but rarely do they achieve name recognition at an international level. Of those who do, few come from Asia and fewer still from Southeast Asia. Badminton player Jonatan Christie could be the athlete to change that.
In October, Christie was the star of the Indonesian team who flew to Denmark and smashed their way to victory in the Thomas Cup, defeating champions China in one of the sport’s top team competitions. Victory for the Southeast Asian country was all the sweeter for ending a near 20-year drought and securing its position as badminton’s most decorated nation. The hard-hitting (and good-looking) 24-year-old is an idol in Indonesia, where badminton is the national sport, but continued success on the world stage could see Christie become Asia’s answer to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Badminton connects East Asian countries like no other sport. Travellers in the region will see street-level games on pavements and in parks, often with just a few basic markings on the ground. There’s something about the soft, elegant, almost meditative, back-and-forth flight of a shuttlecock that suits the climate, temperament and dense urban landscape, although the elegance and grace is smashed in the fast-paced professional game that Asian countries dominate. In fact, Denmark is the only non-Asian nation to have lifted the Thomas Cup, when they beat Indonesia in the 2016 final.
Christie rose to prominence by winning gold on home soil at the Asian Games in 2018. His shirtless celebration, revealing a ripped torso, sent fans into a frenzy. Three years later, more than two million people follow him on Instagram – about four times more than his higher-ranked Danish peer Viktor Axelsen, who won gold in Tokyo. A family tragedy hampered Christie’s own Olympic medal dreams but he is expected to star at December’s world championships in Spain and the Asian Games in China next year.
Indonesia is overdue a soft-power superstar. The former Dutch colony is the world’s fourth most populous country but many would struggle to name one of its exports.
The hopes of a nation of close to 275 million should not rest on one man’s shoulders but Christie could be a role model for a newly assertive Indonesia – a much-needed conciliatory power in a fractious region.