21 October 2009

Once again, we're number one...

One thing that we Americans have to admit is that, unfortunately, we're not as popular around the world as we used to be. Yes, I know this is startling, but I think it might have to do with, well, invading countries with faulty intelligence, nationalistic jingoism, torture scandals, Miss Teen South Carolina, you name it.

It's gotten so bad that many of us, while overseas, have actually had to defend particularly unpopular aspects of American foreign policy, such as Reach 364, a C-17 pilot and Olmsted scholar, who actually had to explain to his classmates at a university in Jordan that there must be some logical reason that the United States hasn't yet ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Let's not feel bad, fellow Americans, Somalia didn't sign the treaty either. Jon Stewart has the inside scoop.)

Indeed, recent worldwide surveys have shown that the United States' reputation took a dramatic hit in recent years, with the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index (an index which measures national reputation in 50 countries) placing the United States at number seven in 2008. Let me put that in perspective for all of you--the following countries had better national reputations than the US last year (in order): Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Japan and Italy. The US placed just after Italy, and slightly ahead of Switzerland, Australia and Sweden, which rounded out the #10 spot.

Well, along comes 2009--guess who's number one in the world again, baby? That's right, the US seems to have made amazing steps in repairing its national image in the last year. (This was one of the main goals Colin Powell felt that the US should achieve during an interview during last year's elections).

A few public diplomacy experts chime in:

Simon Anholt at MountainRunner:

I'm still in shock: America, which has languished at around seventh place since the survey was launched, has suddenly shot up to first place overall - and not just in the perceptions one or two countries. This is its average rank amongst all the twenty countries polled: for a sample representing some 60% of the world's population and 77% of its economy, America is suddenly the most admired country on earth.

It's a result which a month ago I would have cheerfully described as impossible. Indeed, I publicly told the government of South Korea that its own President's highly publicised intention to raise his country's ranking from 33rd to 15th in the Nation Brands Index within ten years was a stark impossibility. I rather think it still is for South Korea - which as yet has managed to prove little relevance to ordinary people in most countries beyond its immediate neighbourhood, and still appears to be conflated by many people in my survey with its northern namesake - but America has shown that sudden and dramatic changes in national image are within the bounds of possibility.

My only explanation for this extraordinary reversal in the fortunes of 'Brand America' is that First is America's natural position, and, like most nations and their images, it is tied to this position by a piece of very strong prejudicial elastic. It just happens that since 2005 (and no doubt before), a particularly dark phase of America's international relations has held it in an unnaturally low position. The arrival of President Obama - or, more accurately, the American electorate's decision to elect President Obama - served to release that strong elastic, and the USA has simply snapped back into its accustomed position as the world's most admired country. (Interestingly, since the survey was launched, it has never departed from that position in the eyes of the Muslim respondents in the NBI).

Looking more closely at the data, it's clear that much of the uplift comes as much from improved international opinions of the American people themselves as from improved opinions of their government. After the re-election of George W. Bush, I began to record falling scores not just for U.S. foreign policy, but also for the American people, American culture, American products and even - by a delightfully illogical extension - the Americanlandscape. Now, however, we appear to judge that the American people have redeemed themselves by electing the right president. Even America's countryside and cityscapes, it seems, are fully restored to their former beauty and grandeur in the eyes of the world.

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

I think it's time for a song about America to celebrate being back at the number one slot. (Hopefully, this song doesn't take us back down a notch)