BY THIS STAGE IN MY CAREER, THE SIGNS WERE OVERWHELMINGLY clear: almost every assumption I or the governments I advised had ever made about national standing could and must be questioned. Do people want it? Is it legitimate? Is it relevant to their needs? Does it work? Is it worthwhile? Does the aspiration to improve the nation’s standing really make sense in today’s world?
I was beginning to conclude that the whole construct of national image, although an undeniably fascinating topic, was a distraction from the serious business of good governance in a globalized world.
I had also begun to find the topic of national image embarrassingly outdated. Sometimes I would listen to the discussions between officials of the governments I was advising, hearing them debate how they could most effectively outwit or outperform other countries, how they could most noisily trumpet their own country’s achievements and attractions, as they constantly looked for opportunities to maximize revenues and dominate markets, and it all sounded unbelievably eighties. A whole quarter century had passed since the movie Wall Street; business and society had changed beyond recognition; nobody wore red suspenders anymore; and yet in government buildings all around the world, greed was still good, and dog was still busily figuring out how to eat dog.
At this point I decided to take some time off and try to answer the fundamental questions that had been perplexing me more and more over the previous ten or twelve years. I had the sense that I was approaching a turning point, and I needed to feel sure that what I was doing was absolutely worthwhile, and if not, I needed to change.
The first thing was to try to establish, once and for all, what were the true drivers of a positive national image, since the question of achieving more prosperity, especially for developing countries, had been the starting point of the whole exercise. The Nation Brands Index, by this time, had accumulated more than a billion data points, and I’d only scratched the surface of what I could learn from it. To use that big data to identify what made the difference between a country with a strong image and one with a weak image was, at least in principle, pretty straightforward and well worth doing.
So what I ended up calling the MARSS model was based on an analysis of the seventeen surveys of international perceptions of a total of sixty-four countries which I had carried out between 2005, when the Nation Brands Index was launched, and 2011, when the most recent edition had been published.
My analysis of the cumulative NBI database showed that the five key drivers of overall national standing could be characterized as morality, aesthetics, relevance, sophistication, and strength.
MORALITY is concerned with whether people approve of the country and its behavior in the international domain: is the country perceived to exert a positive and principled influence on humanity and the planet?
AESTHETICS is a measure of whether the country—its people, its cities and landscapes, even its products and cultural productions—are regarded as pleasing to the eye. Those of us who are sighted find it difficult to dislike or disapprove of visually attractive places, people, and products. We have a strong tendency to associate beauty with virtue.
RELEVANCE is a critical factor: a country may be considered attractive or unattractive, weak or strong, modern or old-fashioned, but all of these factors are more or less inconsequential unless the country has the power to impact one’s life in some direct way.
SOPHISTICATION is a measure of how advanced a country is perceived to be: whether it is regarded as primitive, unsophisticated, and backward, or modern and highly developed, with advanced technology.
STRENGTH is concerned with our perception that a country can wield direct influence over us or others, independently of the other three attributes. This corresponds to what Joseph Nye refers to as hard power.
I then worked out how closely these clusters of perceived values correlated with the strength of each country’s overall reputation as measured in the NBI. It turned out that relevance and aesthetics were the least important contributors; strength followed by sophistication were the next most important, but morality made the biggest contribution of all, by a wide margin, and correlated most strongly with each country’s overall NBI score.
The message from the analysis was clear: The countries that people prefer aren’t necessarily the biggest, strongest, richest, or most beautiful, although these are important considerations. The most likely reason why somebody would admire a country is that they believe it contributes something of value to the world we live in, that it is motivated by positive values and principles.
In other words, people admire good countries.
Does that conclusion have a familiar ring to it? If so, it’s because we learned long ago that consumers admire good companies. This is corporate social responsibility all over again, but played out this time at the level of the nation-state. And governments, just like corporate boards, ignore it at their peril.
Yet why shouldn’t it be so? The same consumers who won’t buy running shoes from a certain company because they don’t like what they’ve heard about the way it treats workers in its overseas factories, might equally refuse to visit a certain country because they don’t approve of its government’s record on human rights. It’s the same people, exercising the same set of values on every choice they make as consumers, students, investors, visitors, employers, and opinion formers.
And if that all sounds a bit too good to be true, it chimed with something else that the NBI had been telling me for years: most of us don’t much like to think about other countries. There are too many of them, and it’s all too complicated. So a country we perceive as a reliable, reassuring, and principled actor in the community of nations is a country we can safely ignore. It doesn’t need watching or worrying about. But a country which we believe disturbs the global equilibrium, which potentially threatens our world or our children’s world, is a country we do have to think about and worry about, and that’s something we don’t much like doing.
Lots of people around the world believe, for example, that Norway is a “Good Country,” perhaps because they’ve heard of the Oslo Peace Process and they know that Oslo is in Norway. Consequently, they don’t go to bed at night afraid they’ll be awoken at 3 a.m. by Norwegian terrorists standing around their bed. So they admire Norway and reward it by buying its products and services, going there on holiday, investing in its economy, hiring its citizens, trusting its government, and so forth, somewhat more than they might otherwise do. On the other hand, many people think that Russia is a country that somehow disturbs or threatens the international order, even if some of them would be hard pressed to give you precise details. Consequently, they do worry a bit about Russia before they go to bed, and so are less likely to buy its products, hire its people, or want to visit. It’s as simple and as brutal as that. Multiply by billions of people, and you have economic and social forces of planetary significance.
This discovery was a turning point, as it validated what I’d been saying to governments for years: If you want to do well, you have to do good. And because doing good at a global scale is necessarily a matter of working with others, the most competitive form of national behavior is collaboration.
Here, finally, was a way out of the conflict between the desire of governments to act in a responsible and principled way in the international community on the one hand, and their duty to serve the interests of their own population on the other. It neatly closed the loop between the two. Desiring a better national image, far from being an unworthy and superficial distraction for governments, was the missing piece of the jigsaw. It was the motivation they needed, finally, to do what they had to do in order to heal the planet and save humanity.
Armed with this knowledge, I was ready to move on.
I soon adopted the habit of using the term Good Country as shorthand to describe the kind of country that made a sustained and helpful contribution to the international community. This doesn’t mean “good, the opposite of bad”; it means “good, the opposite of selfish”: a country that tends toward cooperation and collaboration, achieving the successful harmonization, wherever possible, of national self-interest and the collective interest of humanity and the planet.
However, a lot of people who saw the phrase Good Country and didn’t bother to read on—and who does read on today? If you’re still with me, you’re amazing—usually assumed that I meant a well-run country, a country that looks after its citizens properly, a country where social justice and equality reign. But that’s not what I meant at all: those domestic good-governance conditions are surely entry-level stuff. In my view, you shouldn’t even get to qualify as a government unless you work tirelessly toward those aims and achieve them. My point was that the unavoidable, unshirkable challenge for governments today is not only to achieve these domestic aims but to achieve them at no cost to the world outside their borders—and preferably at benefit.
I don’t want to underestimate the scale of that change. It will take much more than just imaginatively collaborative policies from a handful of governments to set humanity on a safer course, and even achieving that modest aim was proving to be slow work. The “national interest,” the electoral cycle, the innate conservatism of bureaucracies, the natural short-termism of elected governments, domestic politics, and plain inertia always seemed to get in the way.
This is a challenge that needs to be tackled from both ends. Changes in the behavior of policy makers and other powerful decision-making elites are necessary but not sufficient to make a Good Country. Ultimately, citizens and voters have to be part of the change too: a society that supports and lives that collaborative mindset from day to day.
The trouble is that citizens won’t usually change their behavior unless encouraged or obliged to do so by their leaders; but most leaders won’t change their behavior unless they are convinced it’s what their citizens want. And the resistance from some groups to more collaborative, more considerate, more internationally minded approaches from their government is enough to persuade politicians that they are not improving their own chances of reelection by pushing for such a change.
The current resurgent fascination with histrionic nationalism—a nasty fever that humanity seems to catch every few generations—doesn’t help. An ever louder chorus in ever more countries is claiming that the rest of the planet can look after itself and that the only job of a national government is to focus on the national interest and grab the best deal possible. After all, other populations have their own government to look after their interests.
Such an approach isn’t entirely irrational or even hard to sympathize with, but it is short-termist, and short-termism is increasingly dangerous. Conceiving of countries as if they were separate and separable entities, unconnected islands in a vast ocean, is a false perception, not supported by economic, political, social, or environmental reality. It’s based on lines that we’ve drawn, on maps that we’ve drawn. It’s perception, not reality.
And yet this attitude is a huge problem. In fact, it’s the main reason we’re facing crunch time now. Because all of our biggest problems are shared and global and don’t respect those artificial boundaries, we have no choice but change our viewpoint. Being a Good Country isn’t about being a bit nicer to foreigners: it’s about survival.
So what is it about all of us that enables our politicians to keep the well-being of the planet and the survival of the human species off the agenda, without the smallest squeak of protest from so many of us? Why do we continue to tolerate not living in Good Countries?
I believe this has a lot to do with a simple lack of empathy with people who are different from us. It’s the idea that people in other countries—and when we talk about other countries we are fundamentally talking about other people; we’re not talking about hills and dales and mountains and rivers and buildings and factories—aren’t really people in the same way that we are.
Many of us develop, as we grow up, a tendency to see people from other cultures as somehow slightly less human than ourselves, indeed, as different brands of foreigner: more like cardboard cutouts than real people.
Seeing other people as cardboard cutouts is, of course, the clinical hallmark of psychopathy. True psychopathy is, mercifully for all of us, not a common condition, but here’s the thing: I’ve only ever worked internationally, and I’ve noticed over and over again that the vast majority of the people whom I work alongside have a strange mental block when it comes to dealing with people from other countries. Perfectly nice, decent, tolerant, open-minded people suddenly lose the ability to sympathize with other people when those other people speak a different language, come from a different country, or even look different, for heaven’s sake.
In other words, they exhibit a side of their nature which is mildly but unmistakably psychopathic. I have finally come to the conclusion that a high proportion of the human race suffers from a mild but highly pervasive form of endemic cultural psychopathy. It’s not as severe as active racism, but it’s on the same spectrum.
Fortunately, the complaint is no deeper than culture. It is acquired, resilient, but treatable. It’s the mental equivalent of a mild allergy or a persistent runny nose—unlike real psychopathy, which is an innate mental abnormality and far harder to treat. We can be cured; we can cure ourselves.
Mixing with people from other countries and cultures, something that globalization now enables and increasingly obliges us to do every day, is not something we have to learn to tolerate; it’s something that directly and significantly benefits us and our endeavors, both immediately and in the short term. It’s in our interest, in various entirely practical and immediate ways—not as some abstract moral or philosophical principle, or for some long-term future benefit.
I’ve also noticed that it’s easy for people to have as much of a mental block about the whole planet as they do about the whole of humanity: a perception, deeply held and never really questioned or analyzed, that “the world” or “the planet” is somewhere else, a different place from where we are. Lots of people, notably Carl Sagan, have written eloquently about the famous NASA photograph of the “pale blue dot,” and speculated that this image was a turning point for humanity, seeing for the first time its own fragile habitat looking so small and lonely in the vastness of space.12 But I wonder if, for some people, it has the opposite effect: seen from space, Earth looks more than ever like some other place that’s obviously quite familiar but not what we’re actually in. “The world” is a place we see on the TV news: it’s far away, strangely disconnected from ourselves, and strangely abstract, just as most of the people who live there seem a little abstract. This needs fixing.
Part of the problem, especially when we’re contemplating the consequences of humanity’s impact on the planet, is that each of us are utterly convinced of our own weakness and our inability to impact anything so gigantic, and that’s a deeply rooted human perception. Everything we do every day, and ever have done since we first became sentient either as individuals or as a species, simply reinforces the physical fact that we cannot directly influence the world beyond the reach of our own arms. We have evolved the ability to act collectively, but we haven’t yet evolved the sense of collective responsibility that needs to go with this.
A sense of physical impotence is part of the human condition, and it sits uneasily with the capacity that many of us have for thinking and imagining and dreaming on a much grander scale. This disparity between how far our minds and our bodies can reach is the source of everything that’s best and worst about humanity. So when the experts tell us that we’re destroying the planet and affecting the lives of people in distant countries, at a fundamental level we simply refuse to believe it: we know it can’t be true. Thus, humanity is too humble when it should be aware of its collective strength, and too arrogant when it should be aware of its weakness.
The opposite of cultural psychopathy is cultural sensitivity. This is the good angel on our other shoulder, the half of our nature we need to awaken and be led by if we are to make the switch to a more productive way of being in the world.
For as long as I can remember, I assumed that people from other countries were going to be more interesting than people from my own country, and that the countries they lived in were going to be more interesting than the country I lived in. It might sound a little geeky to some, but I used to read atlases in bed and can remember feeling slightly disappointed, the first time I went up in an airplane, when I noticed that there were no thick black lines on the ground marking the boundaries between nations.
Over the years, I developed a personal philosophy about cultural sensitivity and how it’s almost the opposite of political correctness (an approach that often treats cultural or racial attributes, bizarrely, as if they were some kind of disability that’s better not discussed in case people get offended). It occurred to me that growing up in any particular country is a bit like living in a room where your shirt is the same color and pattern as the wallpaper. It’s hard to see where the room stops and you start. But the moment you leave that room, and you’re standing in your striped shirt in front of flower-patterned walls, you suddenly see your own outline.
I don’t think there’s anything uncommon about being attracted to other cultures. In fact, just like the potential for cultural psychopathy, almost everybody has the potential for it inside them.
This is clear at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, when teams of athletes from all over the world parade around the stadium behind their banners, and there’s hardly a dry eye in the house. Many people who, in their ordinary lives, aren’t notably internationally oriented, have spoken to me about the surge of affection they feel for each and every national team—from the great world powers to the tiny island nations they have scarcely ever heard of—as they watch them walk proudly behind their flag, often visibly displaying their own emotion at participating in the parade. It’s as if every human being has a gene somewhere in their genome that automatically lights up when presented with people from different cultures, as long as it’s in the right context.
How can we understand and set that gene to work?
It feels to me that the reaction we have comes from suddenly apprehending the contrast between apparent difference and fundamental similarity (bearing in mind that most strong emotions are what you might call auto-motive: they contain contrasting elements that cause them to jiggle around under their own power, like the common poles of magnets forced together). In this case, it’s the contrast between an apparently alien exterior—unfamiliar facial features, a language you can’t understand, different clothes—and the sudden realization that underneath we are also siblings, fellow humans. It’s the simultaneous realization of distance and proximity: so far, and yet so near. It’s like that extraordinary moment when David Attenborough gets close to the gorilla and for a second they look each other in the eye. There’s so much fear, puzzlement, strangeness, and yet—at the heart of the encounter across light-years of difference—a glint of recognition. I see you seeing me, and you see me seeing you.
That Olympic gene can drive us in two directions: it can drive us apart or it can drive us together. Like a magnet, it has the power to attract and repel. It can trigger love or hate, reassurance or fear, peace or violence.
The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins used the word dapple to describe the interplay of light and shade, the splotchy mingling of unequal tints and shades. He wrote of the mottled colors of a trout in a stream, the wings of finches, the cloud-scape and the landscape. For him, this chaotic beauty is the manifestation of divine power.13 I’ve always felt that this idea has a strong parallel in the aesthetics of multiculturalism: mixtures of different elements are more productive, more beautiful, richer than any single element could ever be.
It’s the diametric opposite of fascism, and the false idea that if you get people of the same race to interbreed, they’ll create a master race. The opposite is true, as any first-year biologist will tell you: genetic defects will accumulate. If you get an artificially limited group of blue-eyed, blond-haired people to make babies together, eventually you’ll spawn a race of weird-looking goofs who can’t count up to three. But if, on the other hand, you stir up the gene pool as much as possible, your children get progressively brighter and more beautiful. In nature as in culture, purity is more closely related to death than to life.
I still remember when I worked in the creative industries, long ago in the 1980s, what a struggle it was for us to come up with creative ideas. We had to squeeze each original notion out of our brains like wringing drops of water out of a damp dishcloth. For the longest time, I failed to understand the real reason for this: we all accepted the incredibly low success rate because everybody had always accepted it, and took it as proof of the preciousness of those ideas when they finally did emerge (even though, in truth, most of them weren’t anything special).
It was only in the 1990s when I started my own company and employed creative people from a number of countries—at one stage we had twenty-nine nationalities in a staff of twenty-six—that I began to understand what I’d been missing. Your cultural background determines your inventive faculties to a considerable degree: new ideas are after all made of culture, and so they come, inevitably, from one’s own culture. So brainstorming with people from the same culture, as I had previously been obliged to do but never saw it as a problem, is highly unlikely to produce anything new. There’s nothing to rub together and make a spark: flint and flint, steel and steel.
World thinking is a bit like world music. If you get a Polish string band to jam together with a Bolivian rap artist, the music they make together will be, almost by definition, new music. Nobody in the world will ever have made those combinations of sounds before, for the simple reason that nobody has ever tried anything as odd as that before. The music may not work, it may not be harmonious or pleasant to listen to, but there will be combinations in there, new scraps of melody, new composite rhythms, new harmonies, that quite likely have never been heard before. Then the long slog starts: the musicians have to carefully pick out the worthwhile bits and weave them into something that actually works.
Globalization has done this for us. Through the intermingling of people and ideas and languages and challenges, it has placed at our fingertips the greatest potential, the greatest store for innovative solutions, that humanity has ever accessed.