We celebrate the countries that have mastered the subtler arts of global influence.
When it came to drawing up this year’s rankings and deciding who would take the top spot, monocle’s editors were given pause for thought. It felt as though 2023 had not been a great year for any nation, especially those that were committed to “soft” ideals such as pluralism, diplomacy and peace. At times when these qualities are under threat, we are forced to reappraise them. As our inaugural security survey argues later on, protecting its citizens is a state’s primary purpose. While some take this to mean guns and bombs, here we choose to celebrate those subtler things that comprise security, such as respect, freedom and good living – all things essential to quality of life.
In a fracturing world, the exercise of effective soft power can seem vanishingly rare. But look beyond the harrowing images on the 24-hour television news and you might catch a glimpse of it in the background. As the situation in Israel and Gaza has deteriorated, Western and Middle Eastern leaders have begun a frenzied attempt to avoid a wider regional conflagration. At the time of writing, though the bloodshed in Gaza continues, this seems to be working – a testament to the efforts of diplomats such as the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who must have a really good portable iron for all the creaseless appearances that he has made since early October.
Diplomacy is very literally the antidote to war. And when you need to persuade someone, it helps your cause to do it in person. Emmanuel Macron is often criticised for his domestic policies but when it comes to getting out on the road and pressing the flesh with his foreign counterparts, there really isn’t any other head of state who does it so often. This, combined with his country’s enviable possession of those qualities mentioned above, as well as that inimitable savoir-faire, is why France takes the top spot for 2024. The survey is not an exact science; it involves much data but also lots of debate. It does not claim to be definitive either. We encourage you to challenge us on the results. After all, the ability to quarrel peacefully is an inalienable right of every French man and woman – and of you, dear reader, too.
France hasn’t had it easy in recent years. It has had to contend with the rise of the far-right and waves of social unrest, from the gilets jaunes protests to riots sparked by police violence. Nonetheless, it remains a soft-power titan. The enduring appeal of the French way of life has made it the world’s most-visited destination. Robust investment in the cultural and creative sectors has paid dividends and the country is leading by example in terms of the green transition, with the France 2030 investment plan under way. Paris’s decision to ban rental e-scooters in September is inspiring other cities to follow suit too.
That said, Emmanuel Macron, now in his second presidential term, knows that France can’t be complacent in a multipolar world where it often finds itself in the thick of fierce ideological battles. “We must rearm our diplomacy,” he told a gathering of French ambassadors in August, stressing the importance of the image that the country projects to the world. Macron is particularly concerned about anti-French sentiment in Africa, which Paris accuses Moscow of stoking.
Against such a background, the increasing role of France’s African and Arab diaspora in soft-power efforts makes sense. Franco-Senegalese creatives have been crucial in bringing Chanel runway shows to Dakar. France’s culture minister, Rima Abdul Malak, draws on her Lebanese roots. Footballer Kylian Mbappé, the captain of France’s national team, grew up in the Paris suburbs with a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother; much-hyped French nba star Victor Wembanyama has Congolese heritage. Macron has said that he wants the country’s inclusivity to be showcased at the 2024 Summer Olympics, following its successful hosting of the Rugby World Cup in the autumn. That’s not just a riposte to the far-right. It’s also good for French soft power.
Embassies abroad: 162
Unesco World Heritage sites: 84
Good: Prominent French citizens of African and Arab heritage are now playing a larger role in the country’s soft-power efforts, while showcasing its diversity.
Bad: France too often makes the international headlines as a result of societal unrest at home, polarisation and the rise of the far-right.
As the pivotal 2024 presidential election nears, long-held American ideals are being tested.
Soft power comes in many forms. For the US, it has always been wrapped up in its ideals. At its best, the country practises what it preaches: it supports democracies, free speech and effective governance abroad, while projecting such values through the actions of its politicians and people at home. This worked well in 2022 as the US backed foreign democracies such as Ukraine, while working to fix its own electoral system and heal some internal divisions. In the past year, however, those ideals have once again begun to slip, which is why the US has dropped slightly in our survey.
The dysfunction in its House of Representatives in 2023 is symptomatic of a looming paralysis of government, while arguments over free speech have taken ugly turns within society. In diplomatic circles, waning American support for Ukraine and protests in the Arab world over Washington’s steadfast backing of Israel have undermined the country’s leadership. But while the US struggles to serve as a political role model these days, the record-shattering phenomenon that was “Barbenheimer” (the films Barbie and Oppenheimer, released on the same day) and Taylor Swift’s global tour were reminders of the country’s ability to shape the cultural conversation.
The year ahead marks a turning point. Whoever wins the 2024 presidential election, the result will be closely watched for signs of what the US represents and where it is heading: whether it will take an isolationist turn or continue to project outward; whether its government can even remain open for business amid a polarising vote and multiple trials. Few nations’ soft power is as tied to the question of whether they can lead by example as that of the US. For the Land of Opportunity, 2024 will be a chance to answer those concerns – or it could prove to be the year when it is broken by them.
Institutions in QS World University Rankings top 100: 27
Olympic medals at the last Summer Games: 113
Good: The US remains the country to which others turn for leadership. Its diplomatic corps continue to project that image and exercise oversized influence abroad.
Bad: The 2024 election risks turning the country inward or even paralysing government operations. A more isolationist foreign-policy approach looms.
After a rocky start, Europe’s masters of mediation are reclaiming their rep for sensible diplomacy.
Switzerland has faced plenty of challenges over the past year, as well as opportunities to demonstrate its trademark stoicism. For a nation that prides itself on its stability and banking prowess, the collapse of Credit Suisse in March caused blushes before the bank’s state-orchestrated takeover by ubs. A miscount of votes in October’s federal elections further dented the country’s reputation for meticulousness. The final results showed a swing to the far-right.
Beyond its borders, there were questions around Switzerland’s neutrality after it mirrored EU sanctions against Russia. But as the Israel-Hamas conflict developed, it climbed back on the fence – though it voted in favour of a ceasefire at the UN General Assembly in October. Switzerland also contributed to getting humanitarian aid into Syria after an earthquake last February. In 2024 it will be in its second and final year as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, where it will be asked to arbitrate between permanent members China, France, Russia, the UK and the US.
On a lighter note, could tennis player Dominic Stricker be a replacement for soft-power behemoth Roger Federer? His win at the US Open against Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas catapulted him to the top of the list for sporting-treasure status. Swiss service also deserves a mention. The country exports some of the world’s best GMs and service staff as alumni of hospitality schools such as the ehl Hospitality College in Lausanne. There’s a culture of paying people fairly for work that’s sniffed at in other countries and offering incentives to build rewarding retail and hospitality businesses too. Wherever your favourite waiter or concierge hails from, there’s a fair chance that their manners were polished in Switzerland.
Nobel laureates: 25
Visa-free travel: 188 countries
Good: At a time of ideological and geopolitical fracture, Switzerland’s long-held position of neutrality could make it a vital arbiter in global disputes.
Bad: Many countries have had a challenging 2023 but Switzerland’s reputation for competence, especially in finance, took an unexpected bump.
Happy to help
Josh Fehnert on why having a reputation for good service is a future-proof way to win hearts and minds around the world.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when “service” became a dirty word in otherwise civilised societies: work for low-paid, low-skilled and low-status people. Was it when supermarkets began to replace human staff with glitchy self-checkout machines? Or when people started to feel embarrassed about working in a shop or restaurant? Whatever caused this shift in attitude, it’s undeniable that levels of service in some parts of the world vastly exceed those in others – and it’s time that we talked about it.
Good service helps to sell both your citizens’ and your national brand abroad. While the Swiss trade on silver service, plump pillows and precision table-laying through its famed hospitality schools (and decent, dignified wages for service workers), there are other nations whose skills should be commended too. In parts of Italy, Portugal and Greece, a career as a characterful and unflappable waiter is considered something to be proud of rather than a stopgap for eye-contact-averse students.
Thailand belongs at the top table of nations that know that a deftly deployed smile can unlock success in retail and hospitality. Meanwhile, a little time spent in Japan will teach you the difference between the crisp sincerity of someone who is happy to help and, say, the kind of subservience that can pass for five-star service in parts of the Gulf. Service shouldn’t be servile. Done well – with training, opportunities and fair remuneration – it bestows upon those who are good at it the capacity to read a room. It also teaches us to put our egos aside and consider others, a skill that is as useful for a ceo as it is for a sales assistant.
Many people believed that AI would quickly make redundant so-called unskilled service jobs but it turns out that screenwriters, financial analysts and even artists might be first in the firing line. As nations look to invest in future-proofing employment and to buoy their image abroad, hospitality could be an answer. The human touch, empathy and the ability to entertain (and maybe speak a few languages, make a bed and pour wine too) will still matter when that self-checkout machine is on the scrapheap.
A diplomatic titan with huge cultural appeal.
Japan has had a good year in diplomacy. At the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May, prime minister Fumio Kishida expanded the core group to reflect the changing world, inviting leaders from the Global South as well as Australia, South Korea and India. Even Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky put in an appearance. In 2023, Kishida travelled to the US, Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, signing trade and security deals, and countering China’s (and Russia’s) bid to woo developing countries.
Toyota, buoyed by record sales, showed its new EV concepts at the Japan Mobility Show. Japanese films such as Slam Dunk and Suzume transcended the region’s fractious political relations and became hits across Asia. Tourists flocked to Japan in such numbers in 2023 that one of the buzzwords of the year was obatsurizumu (“overtourism”). In often confrontational times, Japan’s gentle hospitality provides welcome relief.
Embassies abroad: 156
Michelin stars: 414
Good: Japan’s efforts to be a stable diplomatic player are paying dividends. Relations with South Korea, long frozen, are showing signs of improvement.
Bad: The country could do far more to leverage its considerable cultural power. Buoyant tourism and box-office smashes at the cinema showed the way in 2023.
A rising force in both sport and culture.
The spectacle of that kiss and a string of own goals from Luis Rubiales, the now-deposed president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, robbed the Women’s World Cup team of a victory lap. With the dust now settled, the episode can be seen in a more edifying light. The players’ skill on the field and their decorum off it has turned them into soft-power superstars, with midfielder Aitana Bonmatí awarded this year’s Ballon d’Or.
In politics, the embattled prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has staked the reputation of his minority government on being a global voice of moderation. He visited China in March amid simmering East-West tensions and urged Israel to curtail its assault on Gaza in October.
Luxury fashion house Loewe continues its ascent, while the Celebrating Picasso exhibition, a collaboration between Spain and France to mark 50 years since the artist’s death, has been a blockbuster around the world. Then there’s Esa Ambición Desmedida, a new documentary on a bank-breaking global tour by madrileño musician C Tangana. The film reveals an artist who places his passion and integrity before profit. This story speaks to the country’s character: ardent, authentic and ready to stand up for its values.
Visa-free travel: 190 countries
Unesco World Heritage sites: 81
Good: Seville recently hosted the Latin Grammys for the first time in Europe – further proof that Spanish musicians are making inroads across the Atlantic.
Bad: The stubborn machismo of Spain’s then football chief, Luis Rubiales, turned the country’s Women’s World Cup glory into a pyrrhic victory.
A creative hub with the world’s attention.
Interest in Asia’s fourth-largest economy remains strong, mostly on account of its cultural exports. South Korean Netflix show The Glory, a school-set revenge drama, inspired anti-bullying campaigns in Southeast Asia. Demand for Korean-language courses is sky high and you can find a bowl of bibimbap in any major city around the world. South Korean sportspeople have been earning their stripes, most notably Son Heung-min, the new captain of the UK’s Tottenham Hotspur football club. Meanwhile, president Yoon Suk Yeol wowed Washington when he crooned Don McLean’s “American Pie” on a state visit in April.
The spotlight has revealed South Korea’s problems too. Its parliament still hasn’t passed relevant safety regulations more than a year after the Halloween crowd crush killed 159 people in Seoul. The nation’s fertility rate remains the world’s lowest. Meanwhile, Yoon is working to make the country the world’s fourth-largest weapons exporter. South Korea has long maintained peace and proven that economic prosperity and democratic rule can be achieved from nought. But as its weaponry heads abroad, it will find it harder to maintain its neutrality elsewhere.
Institutions in QS World University Rankings top 100: 5
Aid to developing countries: €2.6bn
Good: A bona-fide cultural powerhouse, South Korea’s creative arts – from pop music to hit TV dramas –continue to wield outsized influence on the global stage.
Bad: The younger generation is waiting for a new crop of politicians who can make the country as vibrant and equitable as the one portrayed on-screen.
Enriched by tradition and innovation.
With the death of Queen Elizabeth II last year, the UK arguably lost its most potent soft-power icon. Her funeral, watched around the world, was a reminder of British ceremonial solemnity. The coronation of Charles iii in May was another opportunity to marvel (and occasionally scoff) at the eccentricities of the country’s constitution. It would be unrealistic to expect Charles to completely fill his mother’s shoes but the first year of his reign has shown that, when he keeps his mouth shut – or simply speaks in French, as he did during a lavish state visit to France in September – he can engender goodwill.
A steadying of the ship was also required from the UK’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who has brought (relative) calm to the country’s politics after the madness of Liz Truss and years of Brexit brain freeze. His hosting of an AI summit in November at Bletchley Park, the birthplace of modern computing, was an admirable effort to position the UK at the forefront of another nascent technology. Outside of politics, the England women’s football team got to the final of the World Cup in August. Though they lost, they won plenty of fans and favour along the way.
Artists in Spotify’s global top 50 in 2023: 6
Nobel laureates: 137
Good: At its best, the UK feels like a country that is at ease with its past and present: the land of a Hindu prime minister and a sword-carrying king.
Bad: Political polarisation, which is already severe, looks likely to be dialled up several notches during next year’s general election campaign.
Mary Fitzgerald on why Gulf states are pouring money into the world’s most popular sport.
When it comes to soft power in the Gulf, there are few other tools that the region’s monarchies have embraced more enthusiastically than football. Not only have Gulf Co-operation Council members sought to invest in some of the world’s leading clubs, including Paris Saint-Germain (psg), Manchester City, FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich, they have also raced to host major events such as the World Cup. Football’s biggest tournament took place in Qatar in 2022 and Saudi Arabia has been confirmed as the host of the 2034 edition.
It’s easy to see why football is considered a particularly useful instrument of soft power: the world’s most popular sport is followed by billions of fans across all continents. Investing in major clubs guarantees not just considerable revenue but also unrivalled global visibility. Qatar Airways partners with several clubs (most famously psg in France), Emirates has joined up with Arsenal, AC Milan and Real Madrid, and Etihad has a long-running deal with Manchester City.
As a result of these sponsorships, the airlines’ names are splashed across team kits and merchandise. Most of the world’s top-10 football clubs benefit from Gulf money in sponsorship or investment. But as Qatar’s experience with the World Cup showed, the beautiful game can also bring bad publicity. In the run-up to 2022’s tournament, media attention focused on the country’s abysmal labour conditions and poor lgbt+ rights.
The term “sportswashing” refers to how states with dubious human-rights records seek to improve their reputation by investing in sport. These criticisms lost some traction as Argentina’s victory in Qatar – plus Morocco’s success as the first African team to reach the World Cup semi-finals – grabbed headlines.
For Doha, the image of a triumphant Lionel Messi lifting the trophy while wearing the traditional bisht robe was a major win for Brand Qatar. As it prepares for 2034, Saudi Arabia, which has also faced criticism from international human-rights organisations, will no doubt see what lessons can be learned from Qatar’s experience.
Fitzgerald is Monocle’s North Africa correspondent.
Despite a clumsy response to domestic extremism, the Danes retain plenty of international clout.
The Danes are doing their best to save the world from itself but a slight slip in its ranking this year is perhaps an indication of the nation’s equally reliable ability to self-sabotage. In the plus column, Danish pharma giant Novo Nordisk, not content with making life tolerable for the world’s half a billion diabetics, is now tackling a far more widespread problem, obesity, with the global drug du jour, Wegovy. Sales have catapulted Novo to become the most valuable company in Europe by market capitalisation, while the Novo Nordisk charitable fund is now the largest in the world. Some fear that Denmark risks a Nokia/Finland scenario, with the country’s economy single-handedly rescued from recession by the company, whose value now exceeds Denmark’s gdp.
On the international stage, Copenhagen’s support for Ukraine continues. The prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, has visited Kyiv three times now, and Volodymyr Zelensky was in Denmark recently to accept a donation of 19 f-16 fighter jets. On the softer front, Jonas Vingegaard won his second Tour de France, cementing Denmark as a great cycling nation. And look out for the latest Mads Mikkelsen historical epic, The Promised Land (Bastarden), as a potential Oscar winner next year.
Yet the country’s conflicted relationship with Islam continues to clash with its uncompromising approach to free speech. The burning of the Qur’an by Danish extremists in front of Arabic embassies in Copenhagen has sent lawmakers into a twist. Foreign minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s pragmatic approach to the country’s economic interests in the Middle East (Danes sell a lot of dairy produce there) has meant that protests from Muslim governments have resulted in a more proactive legislative response. But clumsy wording of the new law means that protesters risk being caught in the legal net.
Companies in top-100 based on market capitalisation: 1
Pledged carbon neutrality by: 2050
Good: From Novo Nordisk to Lego and Vestas, Denmark continues to produce world-leading and innovative companies in a wide range of sectors.
Bad: The country’s controversial approach to immigration and integration sometimes gives off a less positive image abroad.
An EV pioneer and determined peacemaker.
Conflict resolution has remained a central feature of Norway’s foreign policy efforts this year. The Nordic nation has balanced its arms support for Ukraine with involvement in peace negotiations in Venezuela and Ethiopia. But the country’s soft-power muscle is perhaps even more visible in the way it has pushed its green credentials. EVs now make up nearly 90 per cent of all new cars and, crucially, the charging infrastructure is keeping up. However, many would like to see the country also committing to an end date for the exploration of North Sea oil and gas, still the mainstay of the Norwegian economy. In sport, Norway is used to reigning supreme on the snow. But this year has also been a boon for other sporting talent. Runners Karsten Warholm and Jakob Ingebrigtsen, and footballer Erling Haaland, have inspired fans around the globe. All in their twenties, this Norwegian trio are set to offer more inspiring performances in the years to come.
Aid to developing countries: €4.9bn
Nobel laureates: 14
Good: Norway’s status as a moral superpower has been boosted by its efforts to mediate peace in global trouble spots, and the work of its sovereign wealth fund.
Bad: That sovereign wealth fund, which does so much good, is built on the profits of fossil fuels.
Still luring visitors for a taste of the good life.
This past summer saw a record number of tourists flock to Italy for a dose of sun, sea and sand. Aside from the inevitable questions about how to manage such a tide of travellers, the deluge was proof that Italy’s soft-power assets show no signs of being diminished. The country remains a coveted destination for people wanting a slice of the good life: prosciutto and focaccia, washed down with a glass of franciacorta, are the perfect anecdote to global economic shakiness and numerous geopolitical flashpoints. Italy, of course, has a centuries-old cultural history to dip into and last year’s additions to Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list – Lipizzan horse breeding and Tocatì traditional games – go some way to showcasing the diversity contained within its borders. In short, Italy’s soft-power position remains solid: it continues to excel in areas such as gastronomy, architecture, fashion, design and even music. Alongside events such as Salone del Mobile and the Venice Film Festival, there’s also the forthcoming 2026 Milano-Cortina Winter Olympics.
However, there are still areas for improvement, especially when it comes to openness and inclusiveness.
Michelin stars: 380
Olympic medals at the last Summer Games: 40
Good: Italy’s rich and varied culture – from its food and architecture to its cinema scene and pop stars – continues to be celebrated around the world.
Bad: It has been a long time since an Italian government felt secure enough to project the image of a confident nation.
Finland continues to rise in monocle’s soft-power rankings this year. The country joined Nato in April and while membership of the Western military alliance is very much a matter of hard power, it has given Finland a noticeable boost in self-esteem that has spilled over into the softer arena. This change in geopolitical status attracted a record number of international journalists to Finland and gave the Nordic nation a chance to flaunt its prowess in areas such as equality, sustainability and education. Finland was selected the happiest country in the world for the sixth year running by the UN and, though the metrics for the accolade are highly subjective, it is generally accepted that the country is an eminently good place to live.
Of Finland’s three soft-power icons, two are imaginary characters. Santa Claus and his fairy-tale home in Finnish Lapland attracted a record number of tourists last year, while Tove Jansson’s beloved Moomin characters remain one of Finland’s biggest soft-power exports.
Despite stepping down last summer, former prime minister Sanna Marin is also still an asset. According to the Finnish foreign ministry, she was mentioned almost 200,000 times in the international press in 2023, with a large part of that publicity being positive. However, with the far-right Finns Party now in power – and with the government expected to introduce a slew of new policies that make immigration into Finland more difficult – that positive international trajectory might reverse.
Finland also saw improvements in what has often been its Achilles heel: cultural exports. Its restaurants have more Michelin stars than ever before, and new design brands such as pine furniture-maker Vaarnii have caused considerable buzz abroad. Then there’s Käärijä, Finland’s Eurovision Song Contest entrant, whose “Cha Cha Cha” won the highest number of popular votes in the competition and was the first Finnish-language song to top the charts in many European countries.
Pledged carbon neutrality by: 2035
Visa-free travel: 190 countries
Good: The country is getting better at exporting its cultural riches. Eurovision popular-vote winner Käärijä has taken the continent by storm.
Bad: Helsinki’s new coalition government, which includes the far-right, has damaged Finland’s image as a socially cohesive nation.
If 2022 was the year when Germany’s new government charted a foreign-policy course that was fit for a world post-Ukraine invasion, 2023 was the year to show its progress. But the results have been mixed, as reflected in the country’s fall in our rankings. The term “sick man of Europe” has once again crept into the vocabulary of German-economy watchers, while a three-way coalition experiment has been wracked with infighting as the far-right opposition party Alternative für Deutschland rises in popularity. Abroad, chancellor Olaf Scholz is still struggling to exert the sort of diplomatic leadership that made Angela Merkel a soft-power icon.
As is often the case with Germany, the fundamentals are stronger than the perception. The country is on course to surpass Japan as the world’s third-largest economy in 2023 and remains the second-largest contributor of foreign aid to Ukraine. Its pragmatic approach to immigration – toughening deportation rules while improving access to work for legal immigrants – could be a good model to address chronic labour shortages. And its cultural exports, from beer gardens to classical music and book fairs, remain important. Germany boasted a record number of Michelin-starred restaurants in 2023, behind only France, Japan and Italy.
On the global stage where Scholz has struggled, others have stepped up. Germany’s defence minister, Boris Pistorius, has quietly become the country’s most popular politician. Its foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, is charting a new diplomatic course that focuses less on economic priorities and more on straight talk and values; her approach is earning recognition in foreign capitals. Germany has a postwar history of preferring to operate out of the limelight, putting things into action but rarely taking centre stage. These days its allies expect a more public form of leadership, particularly in the EU, where nerves are fraying over Ukraine and populism is rising. Projecting stability remains Germany’s core soft-power value to other nations but with economic and political challenges growing in 2024, Berlin will likely have to focus its energy on internal renewal before it can regain its global stature. The world will be watching to see what kind of Germany emerges from the other side.
Embassies abroad: 151
Nobel laureates: 115
Good: Germany is a strong behind-the-scenes contributor and leader in the EU. It has begun to appreciate that straight talk matters as much as economic prowess.
Bad: The stability that is Germany’s biggest strength and a reason why others turn to it for leadership is beginning to show cracks both economically and politically.
What do Spanish pop stars and socialites in Los Angeles have in common? Their new-found love of Brazilian-inspired clothing, it seems. Over the past year, so many people have donned the colours yellow and green on runways and on the streets of major cities that fashion pundits have come up with a name for the phenomenon: “Brazilcore”. More than just a fashion story, the trend represents a significant change in the country’s image abroad. Since Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections, his new administration has given plenty of attention to improving the country’s record on human rights and climate change (deforestation in the Amazon reportedly fell by 34 per cent in the first six months of his tenure). These changes have put the country back on the map and done wonders for its soft power. “Brazil is back,” the president announced during his state visit to China in April.
The phrase, which Lula repeated at September’s UN General Assembly in New York, has become something of a mantra for the president as he pitches himself as a different kind of leader for the Global South. A string of official visits to places such as Belgium, Cape Verde, South Africa, Spain and Paraguay – as well as a push for greater South American integration closer to home – have also been part of this strategy.
While Lula’s charm offensive has largely been effective, there have also been a few major hiccups. The president’s stance on the war in Ukraine, for example, landed him in hot water: he condemned Western interference and suggested that Russia and Ukraine were equally to blame. In response, the Biden administration accused Brasília of parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda.
Lula’s commitment to neutrality seems to come from good intentions. The president believes that it makes him well placed to broker a peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia. But it could also cost him friendships and alliances. The leader and Brazil as a whole could find themselves losing a seat at the table at the precise moment when other countries are most willing to give it to them.
Unesco World Heritage sites: 23
Michelin stars: 13
Good: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s commitment to indigenous rights and the environment is a far cry from his predecessor’s anti-democratic values.
Bad: The president’s naive Ukraine policy has put a slight dampener on his country’s resurgent soft power.
Despite ending the year with a political crisis, 2023 has been good for Portugal’s international standing. The sunny Iberian nation has continued its charm offensive to attract new residents and businesses. Portugal reported a record number of nearly 700,000 foreign-born residents, amounting to 6.8 per cent of the country’s total population. It remains an extremely safe nation, ranked seventh in the 2023 Global Peace Index. The country recently restructured its Golden Visa programme; a visa is now granted to those who invest at least €250,000 in cultural activities or €500,000 in local businesses. This shift in focus from property to investment mitigates the distorting effects on the domestic housing market and has been welcomed by newcomers and nationals alike.
Portuguese cities continued to play host to international gatherings of all kinds, from the Web Summit in November to World Youth Day, which brought as many as 1.5 million people to the country over the course of a week in August. The flexing of its hospitality muscle has paid off. Portugal has won the bid to co-host the Fifa World Cup in 2030 alongside Spain and Morocco. Yet some deeper problems remain. The nation is contending with a cost-of-living crisis and strained education, health and housing sectors. There is confusion over the future of Lisbon’s new airport; meanwhile, the government plans to reprivatise flag carrier Tap rather than capitalise on its soft-power status and envied connections on both sides of the Atlantic.
Years of political stability came to an abrupt end with the resignation of prime minister António Costa in November after police announced that he was being investigated under a corruption probe. Whoever comes next should continue to promote what Portugal does best while addressing some of its structural issues.
Visa-free travel: 188 countries
Aid to developing countries: €471m
Good: English is widely spoken here, making it easier for an international crowd to navigate life. Portugal is ranked eighth in a ranking of countries’ English proficiency.
Bad: It’s surprisingly difficult to move around without a car here. Investment in rail is urgently needed and cities should prioritise alternative mobility solutions.
Whether as a result of its size or its remoteness, Australia tends to overestimate what the world thinks of it. In October the defeat in a referendum of a proposal to establish an Indigenous voice to Australia’s parliament prompted considerable hand-wringing – at least, among “Yes” voters – about the potential damage to Australia’s global image. Though that might have been hyperbolic, it is fair to say that anyone abroad who did pay attention to the affair was not treated to an advertisement for the country. The campaign was squalid and the result easily perceived as petty. That Australia, a rich, secure and functional country, still can’t include its Indigenous peoples in its bounty is an enduring blot on its reputation.
Nevertheless, prime minister Anthony Albanese’s newish government, capably supported by his foreign minister, Penny Wong, has continued to recover diplomatic ground lost during the sullen, insular rule of Scott Morrison, for whom the strict lockdown prompted by coronavirus seemed not so much a public-health measure as the logical endpoint of his world view. As always, however, Australia demonstrated itself to the rest of the planet most confidently through the medium of sport, if with a somewhat mixed record in 2023. Its men’s test cricket team maintained the upper hand in one of Earth’s oldest continuous international sporting rivalries, retaining the Ashes in a gripping contest with England – though that feat rarely wins Australia further friends, especially in the UK. In the Rugby World Cup, the national team was less impressive. But in co-hosting the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup with New Zealand, Australia was seen at its best: generous, enthusiastic, gregarious and inclusive, as the country went gloriously nuts for a sport that is not normally a national priority and brought the planet along for a fabulous ride.
Olympic medals at the last Summer Games: 46
Top-100 companies by market capitalisation: 1
Good: Anthony Albanese’s government has worked hard to make relations with China stable, if not exactly affable – no mean feat as tensions rise in the broader region.
Bad: In 2023, Australia’s competition regulator took Qantas, the country’s once-admired flag carrier, to court for selling tickets for flights that were already cancelled.
If there’s one thing that Kenya’s president, William Ruto, has perfected since assuming office in 2022, it’s the art of public diplomacy. While traditional diplomatic heavyweights such as South Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia have been preoccupied with domestic problems, Kenya has been projecting an image of being the champion of the continent’s great causes. From organising a summit on climate change in Nairobi in September to announcing a surprise public holiday on 13 November dedicated to tree planting, it has made headlines both at home and abroad.
Ruto’s latest idea was announced during a state visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in October. From 2024, Kenya plans to allow visa-free access to all African citizens. “I want to promise you that this might be the last time you are looking for a visa to come to Kenya,” Ruto said in Brazzaville. “We must remove any impediments to the movement of people around our continent.”
The dream of a visa-free Africa is not new. It is a key aspiration of the African Union’s Agenda 2063. While ageing Europe is increasingly being accused of being a fortress, in Africa, the continent with a younger population than any other, aspirations for free movement are very much alive. The Seychelles, Benin and the Gambia have already scrapped visa requirements for Africans. Soon Rwanda is planning to join them. But Ruto’s commitment is significant: with a gdp of about €106bn, Kenya is by far the largest economy in East and Central Africa, and the biggest economic player on the continent to remove travel barriers for its citizens.
By opening its borders, Ruto is not just wielding Kenya’s growing soft power. His hope is that the removal of visa barriers will accelerate the creation of a continental free-trade area in Africa. But at home the announcement wasn’t greeted with universal enthusiasm. Faced with high taxes, a currency crisis and rising inflation, some Kenyans fear that opening the borders could lead to wages being undercut. While the dream of African free movement might still be alive in Kenya, concerns about its effects echo those in Europe.
Kottoor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist.
Sweden gave up its long-held reputation for neutrality when it applied for Nato membership. Meanwhile, its outward image as a progressive Nordic nation has been dented by gang-related gun crime, which has tested traditional Swedish values such as inclusiveness and tolerance. The ruling centre-right coalition has been left looking weak after winning power on a promise to end the violence.
However, Sweden’s EU presidency in the first half of 2023 was widely viewed as a success. Among the achievements was the historic Fit for 55 package, a climate law that makes reducing the bloc’s emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030 a legal obligation. The Scandinavian nation already sources 60 per cent of its energy from renewables and aims to be free from fossil fuels by 2045.
The country’s top-50 brands collectively grew by 12 per cent in 2023. Ikea, Volvo, Spotify and h&m remain important to the nation’s success at home and abroad. Sweden’s status as a musical powerhouse was confirmed by hits for global megastars such as Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran by the country’s producers and songwriters. A record seventh win at the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest also hit a soft-power bullseye.
Nobel laureates: 27
Visa-free travel: 187 countries
Good: Sweden’s enormous global cultural clout, especially in popular music, remains disproportionate to its relatively small population of about 10.5 million.
Bad: A fraying social fabric has resulted in a string of incidents involving gangs attacking each other with guns, sullying the country’s reputation for stability.
In October, Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, locally known as Amlo, visited Acapulco after a hurricane. His PR opportunity was disrupted when his Jeep became stuck in mud – an apt metaphor for his ineffectiveness as a statesman. Amlo’s six-year term ends in 2024. His lasting legacy might be the unprecedented use of the military for tasks ranging from managing ports to building bank branches. Violent crime has reached an all-time high and Amlo has largely failed to co-ordinate the “nearshoring” boom of potential investment in hi-tech manufacturing as companies around the world look to the Americas for alternative supply-chain options.
Mexico’s soft power continues to rely on the country’s chefs, musicians, filmmakers and others. Its culture continues to be a draw for tourists; Mexico tallied an impressive 14.8 million tourists during the first eight months of 2023. The Migrant Chef, Laura Tillman’s recent book about restaurateur Lalo Garcia, highlights the power of Mexico’s culinary offering. As Amlo struggles to make productive contributions on the global stage, the country’s cultural luminaries have filled the void of promoting the nation’s image.
Michelin stars: 17
Embassies abroad: 92
Good: Mexico’s ample architectural and cultural wealth, and its celebrated and diverse food scene, have remained major draws for international tourists.
Bad: Rampant organised crime continues to contribute to a historically high murder rate. Mexico urgently needs to reassert the rule of law.
Prior to Jacinda Ardern, no prime minister of New Zealand had been an internationally recognised figure. Her immediate successor, Chris Hipkins, barely had time to become a household name in his own country before losing an election to Christopher Luxon in October. The new incumbent is unlikely to follow Ardern onto the cover of Vogue, though that is far from a measure of competent governance. It is certainly the case that, by the end of her tenure, Ardern was more popular abroad than at home. She was nevertheless a considerable soft-power asset. The acts that follow her onto the global stage will struggle to attract nearly as much spotlight.
Though New Zealand has a great deal to fall back on, it is difficult to estimate its soft-power footprint. People correctly think well of the country when they think of it – but that isn’t usually very often. Tourism numbers are still 16 per cent down on the last pre-pandemic year, probably a consequence of recent hikes in airfares. In October, New Zealand launched a new advertising campaign starring filmmaker Taika Waititi, showcasing the country’s glorious landscapes and its bone-dry sense of humour, which are two of the best reasons for visiting.
New Zealand is a quietly determined pioneer of environmental initiatives. In 2023 it became the first country to ban plastic supermarket bags, extending an earlier prohibition to include even the thinnest such receptacles, and proposed a tax on the greenhouse-gas emissions of farm animals. The country missed out on a keenly hoped-for soft-power triumph when its best-known international brand, the All Blacks men’s rugby union team, fell short of victory in the Rugby World Cup. But this mattered rather more to New Zealand than it did to anybody else. Hundreds of millions of viewers were entranced and intrigued by the pre-match haka.
Olympic medals at the last Summer Games: 20
Embassies abroad: 49
Good: Successors to former foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta should continue the country’s emphasis on Maori values in diplomacy, especially in the Pacific.
Bad: Luxon’s coalition seems to be positioning itself as anti-woke culture warriors. The country’s reputation as affable and reasonable should not be lightly discarded.
Canada’s status as an effective middle power was tested in 2023. In September, Justin Trudeau alleged that the Indian government was linked to the murder of a Sikh nationalist leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, near Vancouver. The claim drew a muted response from governments elsewhere, which continued to court New Delhi. That left Canada as a somewhat solitary figure in the ensuing row. Other factors have dented its soft power too – notably the invitation of a former SS officer to Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Canada’s parliament in September. Ottawa’s inability to resolve its dispute with Meta and Google over a law to make them pay for news content has also called its leadership on global issues into question.
But Canada’s cultural clout remains undiminished. From actor Ryan Reynolds and Oscar-winning screenwriter Sarah Polley to the Paw Patrol franchise, Canada’s creative offerings are a key component of its soft power. International events including the Caricom summit of Caribbean nations, held in Ottawa in October, have showcased the country as an able host, which bodes well for 2026, when Canada, alongside Mexico and the US, welcomes the Fifa World Cup.
Nobel laureates: 27
Visa-free travel: 187 countries
Good: The country’s welcoming, forward-thinking immigration policy marks it out among Western nations, as does its well-resourced integration system.
Bad: Once considered a significant soft-power asset in his own right, Justin Trudeau now has the air of a prime minister on the way out.
The United Arab Emirates is treading a fine diplomatic line. While the world took sides over Ukraine, it stayed neutral and kept its door open to anyone who could bring value to its table. That approach is now being strained by events in Gaza but the uae has shown that it can do difficult diplomacy with poise. The Cop 28 climate summit in Dubai in December 2023 is a chance to tout its green ambitions. Following earthquakes in Turkey and Morocco, the uae chartered air bridges of aid. It has also extended its influence in Africa, where it is protecting forests in Zimbabwe and shoring up ports in Tanzania.
Dubai is a beacon of safety and openness, where Russians and Ukrainians coexist in peace. The inward flow of business has yet to ease off; as start-up capital dries up globally, the uae’s sovereign wealth funds have kept the cogs turning in places from Shenzhen to Silicon Valley.
But it could do more with its influence. In 2020 the uae became the first Gulf country to normalise relations with Israel but had little leverage as it sought a humanitarian pause to the bombardment of Gaza. Challenges and challengers (not least Saudi Arabia) are waiting in the wings.
Michelin stars: 17
Embassies abroad: 92
Good: The Emirates are attracting unprecedented levels of investment and visitors, creating the buzz of a place that is well and truly on the up.
Bad: The country’s significant human rights issues remain an international concern, as well as the other elephant in the room: its lack of democracy.