For the first time the UK tops the world as the most attractive country for young people across the G20. Alistair MacDonald, British Council Senior Policy Advisor, discusses the findings of the latest research into international views of the soft power of leading nations.

Editor's note: this article was amended on 1 July 2020 to include newly published links to IpsosMORI data.

Reasons to be cheerful, part 4

Our soft power perceptions research, undertaken for the fourth time since 2016, offers insight into how young people’s views of the attractiveness and trustworthiness of the G20 countries has shifted over time. 

We commissioned IpsosMORI to conduct the research on our behalf. 20,612 educated adults aged 18-34 in the 19 G20 countries were surveyed between 7 February and 27 March 2020. To our knowledge it is the most comprehensive survey of young people’s views of the attractiveness of leading nations that exists.

This year for the first time the most attractive country in the G20 is the UK, having just pipped Canada to the top spot. Canada remains top across our key trust metrics: trust in people, trust in government and trust in institutions, but the UK now shares the top spot on trust in institutions, while remaining second for trust in people and third for trust in government.

People in the UK will be pleased to observe that for overall attractiveness views of the country are up over the course of the survey and indeed are now slightly higher than they were in 2016 before the referendum.

In 2016, 71 per cent of respondents rated the UK six or higher out of ten for overall attractiveness whereas it now scores 74 per cent.

This is a significant result for the UK. Many observers would have expected the UK to have gone backwards rather than be scoring better than four years ago. Especially given how tumultuous the period has been in UK politics, and the frequently negative media coverage both in the UK and internationally. 

It is though worth noting that trust in the UK government remains below where it was in 2016 when the UK was second with 55 per cent of respondents rating it as trusted. Having dropped to fourth place in the rankings immediately following the EU referendum, it is now third on 48 per cent. 

Changes in global perceptions of China

The most dramatic change in the rankings this year is China’s fall of six places from 11th place – which it held in both 2016 and 2018 – to 17th for overall attractiveness. 

However, this is somewhat deceptive. China’s actual score is static, in early 2016, 46 per cent of respondents ranked China 6-10 for overall attractiveness. Today that figure is 45 per cent. The fall in rank reflects increases in the scores of other middle-income countries, including Mexico, South Africa and Turkey. 

However, while China’s scoring for overall attractiveness is effectively unchanged, there has been a decline in China’s results for trust, especially for trust in government. In 2016 China scored 30 per cent on this metric but in 2020 this had fallen to 22 per cent. But perhaps more notable is the dramatic increase in levels of distrust. 

In 2016, 43 per cent said they distrust the Chinese government whereas today the figure is 54 per cent, making the Chinese government the most distrusted in the G20, more so than Russia, Saudi Arabia and 2018’s ‘winner’ on this metric, the United States. By way of comparison the corresponding figures for trust and distrust in the UK government are 48 per cent and 22 per cent respectively.

The fieldwork for the survey was undertaken in February and March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe so the scoring for China may well reflect the impact of the outbreak on perceptions.

Has there been a 'Trump effect' on perceptions of the USA?

The United States government is no longer the most distrusted of the G20 group, but distrust remains historically high at 42 per cent while at 36 per cent the score for trust also lags far behind the other Anglophone democracies. Back in early 2016 these scores were 29 per cent distrust and 47 per cent trust so there has been a sharp reversal in perceptions here. 

It would be easy to blame the Trump administration for the decline in trust in the US government, but the negative trend predates the 2016 election with a wide variety of societal and political factors including gun crime, racial discrimination, the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War potentially all having an impact on perceptions.

Interestingly while trust continues to fall, for overall attractiveness the US is up to sixth position. Further, like the UK, the score is also slightly higher than it was in 2016 (70 per cent in 2020 compared to 67 per cent in early 2016).

This reflects the enduring appeal of the US’s soft power assets which can be seen in our more detailed attractiveness metrics. 

The US maintains its top spot as the most attractive place to study (53 per cent), as a place to do business/trade (52 per cent) and for tourism (33 per cent). It seems COVID-19 hasn’t dimmed the international appeal of the USA as a destination, even if current holiday plans may be on hold.

The UK also performs well on these metrics. It is the second most attractive place for study (40 per cent). It ranks fourth as a place to do business/trade (23 per cent), behind the world’s three biggest economies but ahead of other countries with similar size GDP like Germany and India. It is equal fifth for tourism with Australia (22 per cent), behind the USA, Italy, Japan and France. 

The competition is getting closer, at 74 per cent the UK’s score for overall attractiveness is near identical to that of Canada’s while the gap between first and sixth place is just 3 percentage points, half that of 2016.

The closeness of the results means the UK is very much first amongst equals. Whether it will continue to hold the coveted top spot in young people’s minds in the future or Canada or a country like Germany take the lead in their affections will depend in large part on how the UK navigates this new post-EU, post-COVID world.

It is worth reflecting on what the countries coming top of the ranks for overall attractiveness and trust have in common. The UK, Canada, Australia, Germany and Japan are all prosperous, stable, liberal, free, democratic societies recognised for their support for the rules-based international system. These countries are each broadly perceived as a force for good in the world. 

The detailed results on the individual drivers of soft power, which include factors like valuing individual liberty, a free press, strong NGO’s and valuing diversity, underline the precariousness strength of the UK’s position. In 2018 the UK was first in nine of the twenty qualities. In 2020 the UK was top for just one of these – respect and tolerance for those of different faiths/beliefs – and second in 11. In contrast Germany came top in nine, the US in six, France in four.  

These perceptions matter. Attractiveness and trust impact on the prosperity, influence and national security of countries. Our research has found that those who trust the UK are almost twice as likely to say they intend to do business/trade with the UK. An attractive, trusted UK will find it easier to make trade deals and build the necessary international alliances to respond to global challenges like COVID-19 and climate change. It will be listened to, respected and sought out as a strategic partner. And it will be the destination of choice for foreign direct investment, international students and tourists, with all the economic advantages that brings. 

It is worth taking a moment to celebrate the news that young people around the world rate the UK the most attractive country in the G20, but it also needs to be recognised that the hard work of maintaining that lead, of building a truly 'Global Britain', is just beginning.