Springe direkt zu Inhalt

How Does Your Country Rank These Days? On the Reshuffle at the Top of the Nation Brands Index 2023.

SCRIPTS Blog Post No. 70 by Jessica Gienow-Hecht

№ 70/2023 from Dec 18, 2023

In November 2023, the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index revealed that for the first time, an Asian state has climbed to the top of global popularity. PI Jessica Gienow-Hecht reflects upon what implications such ratings may have, for the liberal script and its contestations.

The author is grateful to Nick Cull for his thoughtful comments on the present piece.

Image Credit: Sofia Terzoni, posted to Pixabay.

Image Credit: Sofia Terzoni, posted to Pixabay.

So, how does your country rank these days? What about its international reputation and influence, compared to others? If you don’t know, check the NBI 2023, short for Nation Brands Index for the year 2023. It just came out, in November, much anticipated due to ominous rumors about major transformations. And it’s got big news: For the first time in NBI history, an Asian state -- Japan – features as the most popular country in the world, tailgated by Germany and Canada. Other rising stars include post-Brexit UK, post-Trump United States, and Australia (No. 4, 6, and 9, respectively). Meanwhile, Macron’s France has dropped by three positions (from 5th to 8th).[1]

What does this mean? What is the NBI and what does any of this have to do with the Liberal Script? The Nation Brand essentially stands for an expectation about a specific place in the mind of a public. It is measurable but not in all places. Its verbal form, Nation Branding, is a set of policies and communication activities designed to change that idea/expectation. It is commercial, has become sort of a central category in the dictionary of international state image management and perception, and its result are controversial. Type in the term to Google Search and you will find some 750 million entries. Policy-makers from Norway to Zimbabwe, from Romania to New Zealand, are spending a sizeable amount of their budgets to pay information experts, creative managers, advertising agents, and visual designers to boost the international image of their countries, all under the umbrella term “nation branding”. Entire advertising agencies these days focus exclusively on nation brand management, often cooking up spiffy slogans for regions with problematic reputations, such as Myanmar (“Let the Journey Begin”) and the United Arab Emirates (“Spirit of the Union”).[2]

The “Nation Brands Index,” founded by British policy adviser Simon Anholt in 2005, assesses individual countries on a regular basis regarding their international perception. For the 2023 survey, NBI analysts gathered 60,000+interviews online in 20 panel countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, weighing data to reflect key demographic characteristics pertaining to age and gender. Interviewees answer more than 40 questions regarding their impressions of specific states considering, among others, on their desire to visit and invest, governance and security, culture and quality of life.

The drawbacks may be obvious: Despite the heterogeneity of subjects, why restrict the pool of candidates to only 60 states and subjects in 20 panel countries? How do income, education, and historical experience factor into the equation? If 80 to 90% of the global population never travel far at all, what is the meaning of imageries generated by the NBI?[3]

And yet. When state officials these days worry about what the historian Nick Cull calls “reputational security,”[4] in comparison to others relative to tourism, governance, investments, credibility, cultural perception and the like, they often call the nearest nation branding expert. The goal is always the same: spruce up the national image, form international alliances, attract trust, tourism and capital. A lone exception appears to be North Korea, as Seoul National University’s E.J.R. Cho recently argued, a state that consistently and deliberately poses as a “threat” to the international community to ensure the regime’s survival.[5]

So, what does it mean that Japan climbed to the top, in 2023? Experts agree that Japanese pop culture played a key role in this development. Since 2010, the Japanese state-run ”Cool Japan Promotion Office” has internationally promoted Japanese fashion, tourism, technology along with Japanese lifestyle, technology and resilience (in the face of economic and natural catastrophes) in tune with manga, anime, and video games. A series of public diplomacy events featured Japanese pop artists the world over as did competitions such as World Cosplay Summit, the International Manga Award, and the pop culture festival. Even top leaders participate in the campaign: At the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Prime Minister Shinzoe Abe unexpectedly burst on stage disguised as Super Mario, the Nintendo video game character.[6] 

The experts behind the NBI 2023 take Japan’s popularity as a sign that the Asian century is firmly knocking on everyone’s door. In this assessment, Japan is a placeholder for much of the continent, notably the Far East. You may squabble with that: post-pandemic recovery has been imperfect, tourists continue to stay away (from China), and the majority of Asia’s workforce continues to be at risk, thanks to global supply-chain disruptions, rising fuel and commodity prices, and accelerating climate impacts. Hotspots such as in Bangladesh and Myanmar, continue to yield understandable protest and disruptive violence. But there is no denying that Asia’s economy is growing faster than any other region in the world indicating continuous economic growth and recovery in the future.[7]

So, there are good news and not so good news: The good news is that there is a liberal script for nation brands. Among the top ten popular nation states in the world listed on the NBI 2023, none is an illiberal or semi-authoritarian regime. Quite obviously, if a country wants a popular image and a good reputation, the best way is to “be good” – and be so for a very long time.[8] The first non-liberal state listed on the index is Singapore, a “moderate autocracy”[9] placed 26th, before Poland and Argentina. And in case you were wondering about the bottom of the chain: Placed 56 to 60, in that order, appear Kenya, Ukraine, Tanzania, Russia, and Botswana.

The not so good news is that in their perception of nation states, post-pandemic interviewees increasingly accentuate the non-political over the political. For one thing, the desire to visit a state’s natural beauties by far outranks the acknowledgment of a state’s investment in sustainability. Which is another way of saying that people rather go see pretty nature than preserve it.

What is more, while governance (security, equality, democracy) does play a role in the survey, ratings increasingly marginalize politics by categories relating to tourism and finance. And that is a problem for the liberal script. For what we see here, hidden behind complicated charts and numbers is a troublesome scenario: On the one hand, illiberal regimes such as China (placed 31st) are successfully stepping up state-run self-promotion campaigns abroad, notably by way of overseas extensions and social media. On the other, liberal regimes from the United States to Japan, increasingly downplay and outsource image management to private-public partnerships, agencies and companies that specialize in “beauty contests”[10] – the corporate marketing of nation states. 

The NBI 2023 findings may well be the result of that shift: While liberal states still do well, interviewees assess countries’ reputation less in terms of governance and more in terms of leisure and portfolio. Japan’s rise to the top, that is, has less to do with 75+ years of democratic government and more with the country’s aesthetics, creativity, and product appeal.[11] And in that sense, the NBI’s prediction for the Asian Century, bears little hope for the liberal script.


Jessica C. E. Gienow-Hecht is a historian of international history, chair of the department of history in the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, and Project Investigator at SCRIPTS. She is the author of “Nation Branding: A Useful Category for International History,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 30:4 (2019), https://doi.org/10.1080/09592296.2019.1671000. and co-author, with Carolin Viktorin, Annika Estner and Marcel Will, of Nation Branding in Modern History (New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2018), https://www.berghahnbooks.com/title/ViktorinNation.

[1] “Nation Brands Index 2023: Japan Takes the Lead for the First Time in NBI History,” https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/nation-brands-index-2023;

[2] For a historical review, see Jessica Gienow-Hecht, “Nation Branding: A Useful Category for International History,” Diplomacy and Statecraft (2020): 755-779.

[3] Thank you to Imina Hecht for reminding us of this important perspective.

[4] Nick Cull, “From Soft Power to Reputational Security: Rethinking Public Diplomacy and Cultural Diplomacy for a Dangerous Age,” Place Branding and Public Diplomacy 18 (2022):18–21, https://doi.org/10.1057/s41254-021-00236-0.

[5] To be sure, historically, North Korean cultural diplomacy in Africa has shown a more lenient side. Tycho Van der Hoog, “Microphone Revolution: North Korean Cultural Diplomacy During the Liberation of Southern Africa.” In The Lives of Cold War Afro-Asianism, edited by Carolien Stolte and Su Lin Lewis (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2022), 265-290. I am indebted to Seung Hwan Ryu for this hint.

[6] Machiko Sato and Erman Akilli, “Branding in the Pandemic: The ‘Cool Japan” Strategy,’” in Erman Akilli and Burak Gunes (eds), World Politics in the Age of UncertaintyThe Covid-19 PandemicVol. 2 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023), 213-226. 

[7] Sofia Shakil, “Asia’s Economic Prospects in 2023: Blue Skies with a Chance of Couds, in: “The Future Forecast: Asia in 2023,” The Asia Foundation, 11 January 2023, https://asiafoundation.org/2023/01/11/the-future-forecast-asia-in-2023/; “This Week in Asia,” The Diplomat, 3 November 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/11/this-week-in-asia-november-3-2023/

[8] To study this, Simon Anholt has recently launched “The Good Country Index” that ranks countries on their contribution to humanity and the planet. Simon Anholt, “Which Country Does the Most Good for the World?”, TED-talk, Berlin, 2014, https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_anholt_which_country_does_the_most_good_for_the_world; Simon Anhalt, “The Good Country Index, a new way of looking at the world” (nd): http://www.simonanholt.com/.

[9] Bertelsmann Stiftung (ed.), Transformation Index BTI 2022: Governance in International Comparisonhttps://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/fileadmin/files/BSt/Publikationen/imported/leseprobe/1938_Leseprobe.pdf

[10] Thanks to Nick Cull for the analogy.

[11] Manga, one might argue, constitutes a politically informed genre, yet various scholars have argued that such nuance often escapes the reader’s eye. Evan Mullicane, “Manga Has Always Been Political, Western Readers Just Never Realized It,” Screen Rant, 20 December 2021, https://screenrant.com/manga-political-western-readers-akira-attack-titan/; Rei Okamoto Inouye, “Theorizing Manga: Nationalism and Discourse on the Role of Wartime Manga,” Mechademia 4 (2009): 20-37, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1353/mec.0.0093.