Image of the earth from outer space
Perceptions Matter. The Earth from Space. Photo ©

Pixabay, adapted from the original.

November 2018

Canada tops the world as the most attractive country to young people across the G20. Alistair MacDonald, British Council Senior Policy Analyst, discusses the findings of the latest research into international views of the attractiveness of leading nations, and finds encouraging signs for the UK.

Freedom and Soft Power

The British Council’s G20 perceptions research, undertaken every two years, offers insight into how the attitudes of young people to other nations around the world shift over time. This year once again the most attractive and trusted country in the G20 was Canada coming top across four key metrics: overall attractiveness, trust in people, trust in government and trust in institutions. Canada is a prosperous, liberal democracy recognised for its stability, respect for diversity and tolerance and for supporting the rules-based international system and multilateral solutions to global challenges. The other nations coming near the top of the rankings for trust and attractiveness are similar in profile: Australia, Germany, Japan and the UK.

 It is striking that three of the top four countries are members of the Commonwealth with similar values, and political and legal systems and cultures

It is striking that three of the top four countries are members of the Commonwealth with similar values, and political and legal systems and cultures. Indeed, it is worth nothing that the top ten countries for trust and attractiveness are all ranked as ‘free’ by Freedom House and, with the exception of Brazil, are all classed as high income economies by the World Bank. This suggests there may be a strong relationship between values, levels of development and levels of soft power.

Through a Glass Clearly

The British Council commissioned GfK Social and Strategic Research to conduct the research on its behalf, which took place in April 2018. One thousand representative 18-34 year olds in each of the 19 member states of the G20 were surveyed about their views of the attractiveness and trustworthiness of the other G20 countries. It is the most comprehensive survey of young people’s views of the attractiveness of leading nations that exists.

In specific findings, the cultures of Japan, France and Italy all seem to hold a particularly strong attractive power around the world that seems to transcend cultural and physical proximity: for example, 42% of Chinese respondents to the survey said they enjoyed the arts and culture of France. 

People in the UK may be pleased to observe that views of the country appear to have shifted little since the Brexit referendum, with overall trust in the UK’s people and institutions unchanged since before the vote

People in the UK may be pleased to observe that views of the country appear to have shifted little since the Brexit referendum, with trust in the UK’s people back up to second place and trust in government also up a place.  American observers on the other hand have cause for concern: more people say they distrust the US government than any other in the G20 group of nations. Some might claim this is down to  Trump’s ‘America First’ policies, but it is part of a trend that predates the 2016 Presidential election. 

Perceptions matter. They shape our everyday choices of what we buy, where we go, who we associate with. Our personal choices, shaped by our views of quality, reliability, value, ethics and “coolness” determine the profits of businesses. The importance of perceptions to success is why companies, charities and other institutions strive so hard to protect their brands. But people’s views and feelings also matter to nations’ success. The economic arguments are obvious. We choose to buy German cars, American mobile phones and Japanese video games, contributing £billions to national economies. However, beyond the economic implications of perceptions, the position of countries is also affected in terms of their international influence. Those perceptions of quality, reliability, value, ethics and even coolness are all crucial determinants of countries’ soft power. Countries align and partner with others that have something they want and who they trust, perhaps simultaneously acting defensively against a distrusted or otherwise worrisome rival. 

Perceptions of attractiveness and of trustworthiness impact on the prosperity and influence of countries, but they also have implications for national security. Whether a neighbour is perceived as friendly and supportive or a risk and threat determines decisions on defence spending and international alliances. If a partner is no longer trusted to live up to their obligations, alternative, more reliable associations may be sought out. 

Countries have their own brands, an image shaped by the behaviour of their governments, by what they do and say, who they associate with and how they conduct themselves on the global stage. But a country’s brand depends on more than just the government; it is the sum of all its parts including the people, values and socio-cultural assets of that country. Culture is a critical part of a country's brand with cultural and educational engagement playing an essential role in a countries' soft power, both through the 'cool factor' but also, more subtly, as a demonstration of a country's values, of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.

This report presents these and other findings that form in effect a health check on the national reputation and levels of trust in the world’s leading nations. The data can help to inform the thinking of governments and others interested in how soft power is shaping the success of nations.

Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Analyst, British Council

See also