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Many metrics make up Monocle’s annual Soft Power Survey, from the number of international students a nation attracts to its gold-medal haul at the Rio Olympics. But this year one metric above all has had an outsized impact on our survey: political reputation.

Today what happens inside a nation’s borders is quickly watched, read about and shared outside. Justin Trudeau appearing at Toronto’s airport to welcome the first group of Syrian refugees made global headline news. Meanwhile, a politician in the US has been responsible for a slew of far more negative headlines. Whether it’s promising to ban Muslims or bragging about sexually assaulting women, Donald Trump’s words have damaged Brand America.

But the US is fortunate. The Republican nominee may not approve but his power is outmatched by that of Beyoncé. The fundamentals of American soft power, from music and film to education and innovation, remain strong enough for the US to regain its top spot. Those fundamentals also help a post-Brexit UK, which may have dropped a place but was kept in the top five thanks to its resilient cultural heft (even as its government undermines the BBC).

Our survey is also a reminder that soft power is not only used by democracies. China’s soft power continues to improve: its investment in sport (it’s hosting the Winter Olympics in 2022) and ever-growing number of embassies and cultural institutes abroad reflect its desire to be liked as well as feared.

This year we have added three new prizes, delving into the stats to work out the best nation for food and drink, culture, and design and architecture. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that our inaugural food and drink winner is Japan; France and the UK share top spot for culture, while the US takes home the design and architecture prize.

As ever, with soft power becoming a larger part of every government’s arsenal, we expect these results to be the source of lively debate in foreign ministries around the world. Turn over the page to find out where your nation stands.


01

USA

Despite soft-power saboteurs such as Donald Trump and arrogant European attitudes towards American culture, the US regains the top spot through the sheer strength of its innovation, education and entertainment offerings.

Back in 2008, when US literary giants such as Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo had once again been passed over for the Nobel prize in literature, the then permanent secretary of the prize jury, Horace Engdahl, claimed that the US was “too isolated, too insular”. He said that Americans “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature” and that “that ignorance is restraining”.

His successor obviously thinks differently: this year the prize was awarded to Bob Dylan. Engdahl’s comments, however, reflect a certain kind of arrogance towards US culture that is not uncommon in Europe. It is seen to be too populist, too low-brow, too American.

Maybe they’re just jealous. While it may be true that many Americans don’t consume huge amounts of culture from the rest of the world, everyone else certainly enjoys theirs. When the new Jason Bourne film was released last summer, Matt Damon’s face adorned billboards everywhere from Paris to Phnom Penh. When Beyoncé launched her album Lemonade it was downloaded everywhere from Mogadishu to Manila. And when the new series of hbo’s sex, swords and sorcery drama Game of Thrones hit our screens it was snapped up by broadcasters from Sydney to Stockholm. Put simply, America entertains the rest of the world.

But its global influence is not limited to culture: its design and architecture is similarly dominant. The US has produced more Pritzker prize winners and has more design schools ranked in the top 100 than any other nation. The country is also at the forefront of technological innovation – the type of technology that we all use every day, from the phones in our pockets and laptops on our desks to search engines and social-media channels. Every nation wishes it had a Silicon Valley – indeed, there is hardly a government on Earth that isn’t desperately touting a Silicon Roundabout or Savannah.

The US government may not be the most popular but the nation is blessed with one of the world’s most innovative foreign ministries, at the forefront of digital diplomacy initiatives and programmes devoted to cities and urbanisation. The US has the world’s most expansive diplomatic network too, with more embassies abroad than any other nation.

Then there’s education. Higher education in the US may be ludicrously expensive but it is also – without doubt – the most popular in the world. Of the world’s top 100 universities, 41 can be found in the US, while more than 800,000 international students choose to be educated there – double the number who go to the number two destination, the UK.

The strength of American soft power has been tested this year. An election campaign based on anti-Mexican sentiment, scare stories about Syrian refugees and hatred towards Muslims has tarnished the US’s brand. For a nation whose cultural exports tell a story of diversity, the reality at home often feels very different.

But if you want to know the real strength of American soft power, count the millions of people from all around the world who each year apply for the Diversity Immigrant Visa, a lottery better known as the Green Card scheme that awards citizenship to 50,000 people every year. More people want to move to the US than any other nation in the world. Regardless of the nastiness of this year’s election and the cold anti-foreigner sentiment expressed by Donald Trump and his supporters, it’s clear that the rest of the world still wants to be American.


02

Germany

Angela Merkel faces strong opponents in the EU and it’s not certain that she will run again in 2017. But business, culture and empathy ride to the rescue

Strengths

Refugees: Merkel’s decision to allow about a million refugees into Germany in 2015 showcased a level of compassion that few other nations were prepared to match.
Business: The German business brand remains unbeatable – no nation has as many well-known and respected companies.
Culture: The Goethe-Institut remains a soft-power benchmark. They may not have as many as the French, Brits and Chinese but Germany’s institutes are arguably more respected.

Weaknesses

Refugees: As Merkel admitted, last year’s surge was poorly planned. Integration has been patchy and there has been a growing political backlash.
Leadership: A year ago German leadership in Europe was undisputed but after the UK’s exit and a flexing of muscles by central and east European nations, Merkel isn’t quite as influential.
Image: The return of the far right, in the form of the Alternative für Deutschland party, has damaged Germany’s international brand.

Monocle comment: Like most western nations, Germany has turned a little inward this year. The 2017 election will be crucial – will a confident internationalist Germany emerge onto the world stage once more?


03

Japan

As the nation gears up for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games it is clear that the government is finally beginning to think about its global image

Strengths

Food: Coming first in our food ranking, Japan’s cuisine is not only a hugely successful export but a foundation for some of the world’s finest restaurants.
Film: Home to a film industry that also exports well: Japan had more than 20 films at the world’s best film festivals this year.
Innovation: Second only to the US when it comes to winners of Nobel laureates, a sign of the country’s innovation, intelligence and investment in education.

Weaknesses

Refugees: While Japan brings in about 20 million tourists every year, it remains a country that has misgivings about almost any form of immigration.
Sport: For a nation that is hosting (and has hosted) the Olympic Games, Japan has arguably failed to reach its potential in the sporting arena.
Image: The amount of international aid that Japan provides every year – 0.22 per cent of GDP – is pitiful for such a rich nation.

Monocle comment: Japan’s cultural institutes should be world-beaters and the country is missing a trick by not investing in an award-winning international news network. Much of the world wants more Japan, not less.


04

UK

The UK slips down to its lowest-ever soft-power ranking thanks to a divisive EU referendum campaign and subsequent anti-foreigner attitudes

Strengths

Culture: The UK’s best art galleries attract in excess of 40 million visitors a year – more than any other nation. They’re free too.
Broadcasting: Despite funding cuts and government interference, the bbc’s World Service remains the gold standard.
Sport: Not just the playing but the hosting. The English Premier League is the world’s most popular football league, while London plays host to numerous international marquee events, such as American football and tennis.

Weaknesses

Refugees: The referendum vote, fuelled by anti-immigrant rhetoric, has damaged the UK’s standing around the world. If foreigners don’t feel welcome the country’s soft power will be drastically diminished.
Innovation: Too few international patents are filed in the UK, particularly for the world’s sixth-largest economy.
Image: The UK is a multicultural society but sometimes forgets to look like one.

Monocle comment: The UK is a soft-power giant but recently its strengths have been undercut by a government that doesn’t see it. Animosity towards foreigners serves to diminish its soft power further.


05

France

No western nation has suffered more terror attacks over the past two years. Despite this the fundamentals of French soft power remain strong

Strengths

Diplomacy: A longstanding investment that is still reaping rewards. No other nation has permanent membership on the UN Security Council, as well as in Nato and the EU (after Brexit).
Culture: Government investment in culture, aimed at holding up tourism numbers, shows that France is not resting on its laurels.
Retail: Two of the world’s most influential retail and luxury-goods brands around call Paris home and drive global design, cultural and media trends.

Weaknesses

Burkini bans: The image of a woman surrounded by police officers in Nice for wearing a burkini caused enormous offence to many.
Marine Le Pen: The possibility of the country electing a far-right president has not gone unnoticed elsewhere.
Image: For a nation that’s so proud of its education system, the fact that only one university makes it into the global top 100 should be a serious cause for concern.

Monocle comment: Next year feels like a potential turning point for France. Its international reputation is still infused by the notion of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” – and we hope that endures.


06

Australia

The nation has much to offer but should start offering it to Asia instead of looking only to Europe. It’s high time for a soft-power expansion

Strengths

Education: Australia scores high on education for both quality and quantity. It attracts more than 250,000 international students (only the US and UK pull in more) and has six universities in the global top 100.
Diaspora: Few nations export so many people who are well liked and welcomed pretty much everywhere they go.
Nature: It’s not a soft-power strength unless you know how to use it. Australia certainly knows how to use it. We love a koala.

Weaknesses

Power share: Too much of Australia’s soft-power success is in the west. It needs to do more to make an impact on its doorstep in Asia, particularly in China.
Sport: This should be a strength – in many ways it is – but Australia is failing to reach its potential, as reflected in another middling performance at the Rio Olympics.
Image: Given the increasingly cartoonish nature of Australia’s parliament it is probably a good thing that international news organisations don’t cover Australia as well as they should.

Monocle comment: Australia needs to be more relaxed about the fact that it’s an Asian country, rather than an outpost of Europe.


07

Canada

The Justin Trudeau honeymoon continues. He has become the world’s favourite political leader, helping to position Canada as a welcoming beacon

Strengths

Leadership: Popular at home, popular abroad, prime minister Justin Trudeau has reached the soft-power heights of an Obama or Merkel.
Refugees: With its well-publicised and well-planned acceptance of more than 25,000 Syrian refugees, Canada has shown more compassion than most western nations.
Music: Only the US and the UK had more artists in the top 100 tracks streamed worldwide last year.

Weaknesses

Diplomacy: Canada’s diplomatic footprint, both in terms of embassies and staff, is still too low. Investment and a strategy is needed to get up to speed.
International aid: The aid budget is less than half the UN’s recommended 0.7 per cent of GDP. For a nation that is trying to project an image as liberal and internationalist, this is far too low.
Culture: Music aside, Canada punches well below its weight. Too few Canadian authors, artists and film-makers are making waves overseas.

Monocle comment: Canada is a perfect example of a nation that has used soft power to improve its global standing (see issue 98 to find out more).


08

Sweden

Its political stability may be under threat but the generosity of the Swedes continues unbound – and its roster of heavyweight brands isn’t bad either

Strengths

International aid: Sweden is the only nation on Earth that gives double the UN’s recommendation of 0.7 per cent of GDP.
Music: In addition to Abba and Eurovision, Swedish creation Spotify has helped to transform the way that we listen to and appreciate music.
Brands: For a small nation – the population is just 9.5 million – Sweden is home to a host of international names, from fashion to furniture.

Weaknesses

Sport: They’re good at handball. But outside Scandinavia no one really cares about handball.
Culture: This should be an undisputed strength for the Swedes but with just two cultural missions abroad the government could – and should – be doing more to help out.
Politics: A shaky coalition government and a range of domestic challenges have meant Sweden has taken less of a role in international leadership than in the past.

Monocle comment: The smallest nation in the top 10 continues to punch above its weight and show the rest of world that size doesn’t matter: it’s what you do that counts.


09

Switzerland

Having largely weathered the banking crisis, this small nation proves that a low-key government doesn’t have to be a barrier to strong soft power

Strengths

Cities: Geneva, Zürich and Lausanne, all with populations fewer than 400,000, are respected cities that play host to hundreds of multinational companies.
Food: While few have ever said “Hey, let’s get Swiss food tonight,” Switzerland is home to some leading restaurants – five of which feature in our Restaurant Awards.
Art: Less the making, more the selling. Art Basel, with outposts in Hong Kong and Miami Beach, has become one of the art world’s premier fair brands.

Weaknesses

International aid: Cuts to the aid budget, which wasn’t particularly generous in the first place, have been noticed.
Innovation: **Just 2,000 international patents were filed in Switzerland last year. That’s fewer than in Mexico, Indonesia and Chile.
**Tourism:
Switzerland attracts just 9.3 million tourists per year, far fewer than its neighbours. While the country doesn’t want mass tourism, it wouldn’t hurt to bump up those numbers a little.

Monocle comment: Monocle comment: Switzerland will hope the worst of its banking crisis is over soon. The nation’s reputation for probity and security is vital to its image.


10

Denmark

Another top 10 finish for a small country with a big influence as the nation’s exports continue to impress

Its capital Copenhagen – a regular winner of Monocle’s Quality of Life Survey – attracts tourists and is an example of what a great city should feel like. But Denmark’s soft power is also about its exports – for a nation of just over five million it exports more films and television dramas than many countries 10 times its size. Now it’s also exporting Hygge, the Danish form of cosiness and happiness. Denmark is a nation whose soft power is bolstered by its people and while they may not always appreciate the “happy” label, it’s done wonders for their image.

How to improve
Denmark’s illiberal attitude towards refugees has damaged its reputation.


11

Italy

Its stability may be precarious but food, culture and generosity see Italy placing high

A nation where politics can make a big difference to its reputation, Italy has benefited from relative stability over the past two years with prime minister Matteo Renzi but that could disappear if he loses a referendum in December. Meanwhile, Italy withdrew its bid to host the 2024 Olympics citing costs. The decision may show a lack of ambition but it’s probably wise for a country with such economic problems. As ever, Italy scores highly for food and culture. Over the past two years it has also displayed more generosity towards refugees and migrants than many of its neighbours.

How to improve
Football should be a positive but violence means foreign fans avoid Serie A matches.


12

Spain

Though the nation’s leadership is in limbo we’re under no illusions about what there is to like about Spain

A year of political instability has not unduly affected Spain’s reputation but has left its foreign policy and soft-power strategy in limbo. Yet regardless of who is leading the country by the time monocle hits newsstands, Spain will be fine. Madrid and Barcelona may get the headlines but Spain is blessed with cities such as San Sebastián and Palma, which have their own sparkling reputations. The country has brilliant weather and a friendly lifestyle that is open to newcomers. Sport remains a huge plus: Spain’s footballers light up leagues around the world and the country is also home to two of the world’s most famous clubs.

How to improve
Catalonian independence needs to be handled with care throughout 2017.


13

New Zealand

Its character may be unfaltering but the Kiwis need a rethink on how to show their nation off

New Zealand’s reputation is as solid as an All Blacks’ tackle, while cultural exports such as Lorde continue to fly the (unchanged) flag abroad. A fresh international tourism campaign wouldn’t go amiss. Not only would it boost visitor numbers, it would remind the rest of the world of New Zealand’s key strengths: natural beauty and a welcoming nature. If the country wants to step up it should turn to Canada, where Trudeau has shown that a nation’s small size and lack of a formal position on world bodies doesn’t have to preclude the opportunity for global leadership.

How to improve
Botched flag change aside, the country’s image could do with a refresh.


14

Netherlands

The Dutch should be more vocal about their global achievements – there is plenty to shout about

Dutch liberalism and tolerance will be put to the test at next year’s general elections; the Netherlands that emerges could have a big impact on its soft-power reputation. Higher education is a huge strength: with eight universities in the global top 100 it is the fourth best in the world – quite an achievement for a nation of 17 million. Technology has also boosted Dutch soft power but it needs to make a lot more noise about its successes. The fact that both technology companies and universities attract an international workforce should be something for the Dutch to celebrate.

How to improve
Second-tier cities Utrecht, Groningen and Eindhoven deserve more attention.


15

Portugal

The Iberian nation has risen up the rankings this time around – and with good reason

Lisbon and Porto are bright, attractive cities that are bringing in entrepreneurial newcomers. Football has played a part in Portugal’s rise up the table – even without Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch they lifted the European Championship this year for the first time. But Ronaldo has a rival for the position of most important Portuguese man abroad: António Guterres, the new UN secretary-general. Rare is the diplomat who wins approval from Russia and the US but Guterres even managed to get approval from China, a result of the goodwill generated by the handover of Macau in 1999.

How to improve
A big push for Brand Portugal could work wonders for the country.


16

Norway

Norway’s negotiating skills and helpful disposition are more relevant than ever

When Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel peace prize for the truce with Farc, a group of Norwegians could be forgiven for feeling briefly annoyed: this deal would not have happened without the work of Norway’s negotiation unit. But that is the Norwegian way: quietly getting on with helping others and not worrying if no one really notices. It donates more than 1 per cent of its gdp to international aid projects and also accepted more than 10,000 Syrian refugees. Alongside its Nordic neighbours it has also been at the forefront of new diplomatic ideas, such as shared embassies.

How to improve
Norway is the sort of nation that should be scoring better on education and innovation.


17

South Korea

One of Asia’s most affluent countries, South Korea still needs to work on its diplomacy

The advantage of having so many well-known companies associated with your nation is the reflected glory they bring you. The downside is that when a battery catches fire in a Samsung product, it can have an impact on an entire nation’s reputation. Business remains one of South Korea’s strongest cards though, as does film, television and music. While they may not get a big audience in the West, South Korean culture travels well throughout Asia. However, it has a pitiful aid budget and despite Ban Ki-moon heading the UN for the past decade, the country’s reputation for diplomacy has not improved.

How to improve
South Korea should take advantage of hosting the Winter Olympics in 2018.


18

Finland

Thoughtful leadership and quiet diplomacy make Finland a soft-power success story

Compared to its Nordic neighbours, Finland tends to score poorly. But when it’s weighed up against other nations of just five million, it does pretty well. In Helsinki it has a world-class city, well led by thoughtful politicians for decades. And in Santa Claus (despite the howls of protests from other nations who lay claim to him), it has managed to craft a clever soft-power story that brings in tourists. While its strong views inside the EU may not go down well in southern Europe, they have found favour in the north – Finnish diplomacy is low key but it has been effective.

How to improve
Finland should play a more influential diplomatic role between Europe and Russia.


19

Brazil

The Olympics were a triumph but they may soon be overshadowed by trouble in the political arena

Boosted by the Olympics and Paralympics in 2016, Brazil’s soft-power standing has improved. But this was also the year when a president was impeached, corruption allegations against a number of politicians were widely reported and the economy continued to stall. Let’s focus on the positives. Brazilian TV dramas continue to be exported, captivating millions of viewers. Football too. There is hardly a league in the world that doesn’t have a sprinkling of Brazilian footballers. And then there is the Brazilian diaspora – the country’s biggest soft-power tool.

How to improve
With corruption in the political system, Brazil will struggle to attract foreign investment.

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20

China

The country’s soft-power credentials are on the up but it still has a long way to go

China reaches the top 2o for the first time. Indeed, it’s the first time that any autocratic nation has risen this high. Its diplomatic reach is growing – only the US has more embassies and consulates. Its cultural institutes continue to open in new nations too; there are now few nations where the Chinese government isn’t teaching the locals Mandarin. But China’s soft power still has a menacing edge. It is, after all, promoting the actions of a dictatorship. Its media outreach may be less bombastic than Russia’s but cctv and Xinhua will never be trusted sources.

How to improve
It doesn’t matter how much you invest in art if there is no free speech.

21

Austria

Despite a recent conservative bent, Austria has cultural capital and culinary kudos in spades

The potential election of a far-right president unnerved many outside Austria, shaking those whose experience of the country is based mainly on visits to Vienna. If this were a survey of capitals it would score highly: it is a cultural champion, a food giant and a history buff’s dream. It is also a truly international city, with a big UN office, multinational companies and enough attractions to bring in millions of visitors every year. Despite no universities in the global top 100, Austria attracts about 60,000 international students a year.

How to improve
A presidential win for the Greens in December could give soft power a boost.


22

Belgium

The home of the EU has had a tough year – it needs to do more to get back on track

Terror attacks do not have to have an impact on a nation’s soft power. But Belgium’s bungled response and the fissures it highlighted between the French and Walloon, and between races and religions, have caused damage. It is hard to tell the rest of the world a story about your nation if you can’t agree on it yourselves. As the home of the EU, Brussels is a centre of political power and one of Europe’s most international cities – that counts for something. And Belgium’s food exports are still popular. But none of that will matter unless Belgium manages to bounce back from a terrible year.

How to improve
Diplomacy. Few nations have as many diplomats and yet do so little with them.

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23

Singapore

The city-state has good soft-power tools at its disposal but it could do with relaxing some of its local laws

Singapore’s strengths have traditionally been education and business. While the city-state is keen to attract international talent, the government’s intolerance can make it tricky: this year it criticised companies for funding Gay Pride. Culture plays a far larger role in Singapore’s soft power now than it did a decade ago, while the nation’s design reputation is also increasing thanks in part to its impressive design schools. To take advantage of these improvements, Singapore could do with a better-funded diplomatic corps – there are still too few Singaporean embassies around the world.

How to improve
Relax a little. The cultural scene won’t reach its potential if work is censored.


24

India

It’s an economic powerhouse but India now has to address its social and environmental challenges

India’s strengths, from cricket to Bollywood, are as impressive as ever. A recognisable globe-trotting prime minister also helps, although because few news organisations have a New Delhi correspondent, Narendra Modi’s less impressive domestic policies (and his Hindu nationalism) tend to go unreported abroad. Education plays such an important role here but its own system is poor: there is too much corruption and standards are low. It is also worth asking why Indian innovation is more impressive abroad. As ever, the Indian diaspora plays a big, positive role.

How to improve
We’d like to see India use its diplomatic muscle in a more altruistic way.


25

Poland

Despite a recent turn to the right, Poland’s soft power is booming at home and abroad

Poland is central Europe’s fastest-growing economy and the leading light in the Visegrad Four group of central and east European states. The nation has become increasingly influential since joining the EU in 2004 and its former prime minister, Donald Tusk, now heads the European Council. Meanwhile, Warsaw and Poznan are making a play for some of London’s financial jobs following the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Poland’s growing diaspora is a strength although the government has admitted that it wouldn’t mind if a few more came home to help boost the economy.

How to improve
The government’s social conservatism is raising eyebrows abroad.

Lotus position

by James Chambers

Vietnam’s soft power is gaining altitude thanks to its colourful national flag-carrier and, under the captaincy of CEO Duong Tri Thanh, the airline hopes to soon be unfurling its wings beyond China and to the US

Touching down at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport is a colourful experience. The striking blue and gold of Vietnam Airlines appears as far as the eye can see, emblazoned on ground transport and glistening aircraft, providing a fetching accessory to the new international terminal. 

Vietnam’s state-owned airline is being propelled by the country’s broader economic liberalisation and its eye-catching livery has set the tone for this international coming-out party. Vietnam hopes to prove what some other countries seem to have forgotten: a flag-carrier can do wonders for a national brand.

A rebrand in 2002 saw the plain white body and uninspiring logo replaced with a golden lotus flower floating on a pond of Vietnamese blue. Picking the national flower is symbolic for an airline that traces its roots to the beginning of the war. Lotus seeds begin life in muddy water before blossoming into white and pink petals: after decades of war and international isolation Vietnam’s flowering stage is attracting plenty of attention. The national flag-carrier expects to cater for 20 million travellers this year.

The airline finds itself at the centre of the debate over Vietnam’s relationship with China. The nations have been on either side of a dispute over China’s territorial claims to most of the South China Sea. Vietnam Airlines’ CEO Duong Tri Thanh, however, is keen to nurture relations. China is his most important market and with only four direct flights to mainland Chinese cities – the same as Japan – there is plenty of room for expansion.

By the end of his five-year term Duong hopes to be at the helm of Southeast Asia’s second-largest carrier, one place behind Singapore Airlines. His cabin crews are English-speaking and sport uniforms designed by Minh Hanh, director of the Vietnam Fashion Design Institute.

The first lady of Vietnamese fashion has swapped communist red for on-brand blue and gold and given the national dress ao dai a modern update. The airline is also increasing its intake of female pilots, recognising its responsibilities as a brand with global ambitions.

The airline’s marketing campaign features smiling faces and the landscapes of Ha Long Bay and Hoi An. As these images compete with bleak Hollywood depictions of Viet Cong and carpet-bombed paddy fields the flag-carrier is preparing for its most important reach yet: scheduling direct flights to the US in 2018. West Coast routes should come first, connecting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to Vietnam’s biggest cultural export: a diaspora of about two million across the US. If Duong can achieve this twin success – fanning his planes across both China and the US – Vietnam’s soft power could reach new heights.

Not a hair out of place

By Megan Gibson

From China’s black shocks to Sweden’s blonde locks, hair colour can be as important to a nation’s brand as its food, its flag or its football team. We comb through the details to find out why.

There are many ways in which a nation can brand itself: national dress, national flag, national anthem. Then there’s the national hair colour. From auburn to blonde, black to brunette, it can be one of the most prominent emblems of national identity.

Ask anyone what first comes to mind when thinking of Sweden and chances are it’s blonde hair. And while there is more to the nation than the hue of its inhabitants’ locks, many Swedes go to great lengths to maintain that identity.

“It’s a myth that all Swedes are blonde,” says Swedish hair stylist Nadia Jönning. “Many women need to highlight their hair to achieve the stereotypical Swedish blonde.” Jönning should know. As the co-owner of London salon Jönning & Riashi, she has a steady roster of expat clients who are keen to keep the signature shade.

The Chinese are also adept at using hair dye to project a national image. Thanks to regular trips to the salon the country’s politicians are all sans silver strands no matter how many years they spend in office. “Ten out of ten politicians want black hair – and not just because they want to look younger,” says Marvin Lin, creative director of Shhh Group in Hong Kong, who has been colouring the hair of China’s politicians and corporate leaders for 20 years. “More importantly they represent the country and so believe that the ideal condition is to have black hair.” The politicians are not alone. According to market research firm Mintel, 73 per cent of Chinese adults aged 40 to 49 use hair dye.

That uniform look creates a visual shorthand for how the world views the Chinese. And while a shock of black hair or a swish of blonde may not say much about a country’s place in the world, it is the quickest way to embody a nation’s identity. Even if it does come from a bottle.

Stamp of approval

By Andrew Mueller

First impressions count – and a nation’s welcoming act can be a potent gesture of soft-power

It is – or at least it should be – one of the great thrills of travel. At the end of your journey, after a (preferably) brief and courteous interrogation, a border guard reaches for their steel-and-rubber seal, flips through your passport to find a blank space and with a resonant “thwunk!” tattoos the page with their nation’s official handshake: the entry stamp. You’ve arrived.

Too many countries forsake this opportunity to make a first impression. Where entry stamps are concerned most have lapsed into the indistinguishably prosaic or stopped bothering entirely – once inside the Schengen area of the EU you can cross the borders of 26 countries without being asked for your passport.

It’s a shame: your passport is a scrapbook of potent memories. Flicking through pages decorated with alluring symbols and language delineated in exotic inks as we wait for our luggage reminds us of where we’ve been and whets our anticipation for whatever adventure is at hand. With a minimum expenditure of effort and imagination, every country could turn its entry stamp into a charming introduction and a fond memory.

Parla Italiana?

By Dan F Stapleton

In an effort to bring more visitors to its shores the Italian government is funding language lessons across the world – and they have been gratefully received in Australia, where the Italians are thought of rather highly

In a tall building on one of Sydney’s most historic streets the Italian government is enacting a small part of an ever-expanding soft-power initiative: to increase the number of Italian speakers around the world and bring more visitors to its shores.

Those assembled for the class this afternoon include a professional opera singer and a retiree preoccupied with maintaining neuroplasticity.They are just two of the thousands of adults enrolled in Italian classes run by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, a government-funded organisation with 83 branches across five continents. Australia is a fertile location for the programme: about one million Australians are registered as being of Italian heritage.

According to instructor Emanuela Moretto, even Aussies with no obvious connection to Italy are choosing to learn Italian instead of other European languages because they regard Italy as being friendlier than its neighbours. “Italians are perceived by Australians as good people,” says Moretto. “That is not the perception towards French people.”

The bulk of the Italian diaspora in Australia arrived after the Second World War. Italians spread across the world during this period due to the poor economic conditions at home. They made a significant impact in sparsely populated Australia, which had instituted a “Populate or Perish” programme after the war.

Postwar Italian migrants became known for their crowd-pleasing food, extroverted personalities and strong sense of family. By the late 20th century elements of the Italian government had recognised how valuable this stereotype could be.

As the Istituto Italiano di Cultura spread internationally its staff made an effort to support language programmes that had the potential to create fresh ties with Italy.

In Australia the institute now pays the salaries of a number of Italian nationals who teach the language in universities, while an official based at the Italian embassy in Canberra oversees the distribution of government funds to Australian schools and community groups that teach Italian.

“The Italian way to promote language and culture is like a mosaic so we have a variety of actors in the field,” says the institute’s Sydney director, Donatella Cannova. “After all we are Italians – we are extremely complex people.”

Training days

By Gwen Robinson

Under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership Myanmar’s diplomats are being trained to better bolster their nation’s soft power

The most striking symbol of the improbable new order in the drab lobby of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the portrait of an elegant woman among the gallery of poe-faced men. To match her determined expression, Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner, Nobel Laureate and now de facto leader of her country, is putting some effort into her secondary job as Myanmar’s foreign minister.

In her loftier role as state counsellor – equivalent to prime minister in a semi-presidential system – Suu Kyi sets overall policies and priorities. As minister of foreign affairs she has called for the reshaping and modernising of the once military-dominated institution and has set out to “sell” her country’s image to the world.

In the dark decades of military rule Myanmar’s diplomatic corps formed the uneasy international face of a secretive regime. Ambassadors in key posts tended to be military men. Few spoke English and their main role seemed to be playing golf with their host country’s top brass and shoring up relations with the likes of China and North Korea. Their underlings were taught to suppress rather than relay information.

In the new era, Myanmar’s diplomats are rising darlings on the diplomatic circuit, basking in international goodwill towards their leader and struggling to meet demands from Naypyidaw, the capital, to appear open, charming and receptive. Despite their meagre budgets, Myanmar’s embassies around the world are reaching out and spending more on cultural promotion and initiating new contacts.

Underpinning Naypyidaw’s nascent soft-power push, generations of diplomats are undergoing new forms of training. They are being sent on diplomatic “study” programmes to countries that include Germany, the US and Singapore. At home the ministry is establishing internal education programmes – and discussing plans to set up the country’s first diplomatic academy.

Officials say that the effect on foreign ministry recruitment has been dramatic. Having seen job applications dwindle in the 1990s and 2000s amid an outflow of mid-level personnel, the ministry is now seeing a surge of interest among young educated citizens.

Few officials seem happier than Kyaw Tin, Myanmar’s deputy foreign minister. “We need to train our people. Even Laos has a foreign service institute,” he says. “From now on we will take a systematic and more co-ordinated approach.” “Everything is changing. It’s kind of strange but it’s good,” says a young woman who is preparing to embark on a training course in Singapore. “We’ve never had anything like this – I just hope the world will be kind to Myanmar.”

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