Argument

The $2 Trillion Man

How Obama saved Brand America.

As 2009 winds down, the pundits are already beginning to tally what Barack Obama has achieved during his first year in office. Even his more well-intentioned detractors contend that, though he may have made a high-profile speech or two, the new U.S. president can boast of few concrete achievements in foreign policy. Obama himself accepted the Nobel Peace Prize as a "call to action," rather than a reward for his work, and gave himself only a "B+" grade during his recent interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Yet in one sense, Obama achieved more in the first 11 months of his presidency than his predecessor managed to in eight years. My research clearly shows that he has begun to restore America's good name, an intangible asset with highly tangible (read: lucrative) consequences. As head of state, Obama has boosted the value of "Brand America" by just over $2 trillion, up from $9.7 trillion in 2008 to $11.8 trillion this year. That means U.S. goods, services, people, and even the country's landscape are about 20 percent more enticing to the global market than they were in 2008.

I know this because I track the value of countries' brand images closely from year to year. Since 2005, my Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index (NBI) has regularly measured the international perceptions of 50 countries by polling between 20,000 and 40,000 people in 20 to 40 countries. We have asked them to detail their perceptions of other countries' human rights records, education systems, cultural lives, products, sporting prowess, and even kindness to strangers.

I originally launched the NBI because public perceptions of countries are critically important to their prosperity in a globalized world. What people believe about other places may be biased, utterly misconceived, weirdly distorted, unfairly negative, undeservedly positive, outdated, and ludicrously simplified. But it matters. Countries with a powerful, positive image find it easier to attract tourists, investors, donors, talent, respect, and the attention of international media and foreign governments. They are more successful in exporting their products, services, ideas, culture, and people to the world. Countries with weak or negative images, by contrast, find these transactions more difficult and expensive. None of this was captured by GDP, economic productivity, or any host of other economic measures -- a hole that the index was meant to fill.

Value of Brand America (in trillions of dollars)

But I also wanted to test my hypothesis that national images are very stable. Country images are not like public opinion, which can fluctuate literally from day to day. People are reluctant to change their minds about other countries, partly because they don't think about them very often or very deeply, and partly because countries' images are deeply ingrained in the culture of the population that holds them. Chinese views of Japan, for example, are really part of the Chinese culture, and vice versa.

Indeed, hardly any country's image has altered more than 1 or 2 percent since the NBI was launched. Perceptions about a given place remained more or less constant even as it was hit by political and economic upheaval, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. Nor did the countless, ruinously expensive publicity campaigns optimistically designed to "brand" countries push up any ratings for the better.

There have been just two exceptions to this remarkable inertia: Denmark in 2006 and the United States today.

Following the publication in 2006 of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, Denmark's image collapsed in Muslim countries in the survey. In Egypt, for example, Denmark had typically been ranked around 15th in most categories, with a high ranking of seventh for its governance. Following the cartoons' publication, both its governance and overall rankings dropped to 35th out of the 39 countries then included in the study. It has still not recovered its prestige today. The reason was clear: Unlike most major news events that take place in other countries, which won't strike people as especially relevant and consequently won't affect their beliefs about that country, the cartoons were personal. Many Muslims felt that "Denmark" had deliberately reached out to offend them, and their views of that country changed as a result.

The second exception occurred this year and was even more dramatic. The United States, which had languished around seventh place in my index since 2005, shot up to first place, and not just in the perceptions of one or two countries. For a sample representing some 60 percent of the world's population and 77 percent of its economy, America is suddenly the most admired country on Earth.

First is, I believe, the United States' natural position. It happens that since 2005 (and no doubt before), a dark phase in America's international relations had held it in an unnaturally low spot on the list. Obama's election "released" the country, returning it to its usual position as the world's most admired country. (Interestingly, since the survey was launched, the United States has never departed from first place in the eyes of the Muslim respondents surveyed).

Closer analysis of the data shows that much of the boost comes from improved international opinion of the American people themselves. After the re-election of George W. Bush to a second term, I began to record falling scores not just for U.S. foreign policy but also for U.S. people, culture, products, and even -- by a delightfully illogical extension -- the U.S. landscape. Now, the world appears to have absolved Americans of any perceived sin, having elected the "right" president. Even the country's rolling hills and city skylines, it seems, are fully restored to their former grandeur in the eyes of the world.

Redemption of the brand means more than just the warm and fuzzy feeling one gets when thinking about the United States. By combining the NBI data with a range of economic and industrial statistics, it is possible to hazard a brand valuation for a country, much as corporations value their brands. Working with Brand Finance, a consultancy that specializes in valuing the intangible assets of corporations, we estimate that the value of "Brand America" has jumped from $9.7 trillion in 2008 to $11.8 trillion today. Even more remarkably, that increase comes even as the global recession has seen U.S. GDP growth decline 2.3 percentage points over the last year. That number is value that Obama has added to the U.S. economy simply by taking office and making the right speeches.

So to those who say Obama has achieved little, my research suggests otherwise. His mere presence has begun to restore the United States to a position of respect and credibility -- and consequently, of influence -- that no amount of political, economic, or military might could muster. And it is an absolutely necessary achievement if Washington is to wield any moral authority in the world. In at least one of his responsibilities as head of state, the sacred responsibility of upholding the good name of his country, Obama has had a pretty good first year.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Lessons from America's Other Counterinsurgency

The United States and Colombia have been testing out COIN strategies for years. But the major lesson for Afghanistan is a tough one: there are no clean answers in messy wars.

Barack Obama is expanding more than just the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. He is expanding the mission. The goal now is to weaken the Taliban not just through force of arms, but by helping Kabul govern, filling Afghanistan's enormous vacuums of stateless territory. The U.S. president's counterinsurgency strategy is more than military. Once the armed forces "clear" territory, the rest of the government must move in quickly to "hold" it.

On the other side of the globe, the U.S. government has been doing something similar for a few years now, if with a much smaller footprint. In Colombia, whose government has been fighting leftist insurgencies since the mid-1960s, the strategy is called "Integrated Action."

The Afghan and Colombian conflicts share some similarities. In both, a brutal insurgency --unpopular nationally but with support in marginal areas -- remains active with funding from the drug trade. It has safe havens in neighboring countries. A weak central government, widely viewed as corrupt, is barely present in the countryside, where generations have known nothing but statelessness or governance by thugs. In each case, a mostly military approach, neglecting civilian governance, has yielded frustrating results.

Colombia has been the top U.S. aid destination outside the Middle East since 2000, when Bill Clinton's administration launched "Plan Colombia," a big and mostly military aid package. Integrated Action came about later, after evidence showed that Plan Colombia wasn't reducing cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine. At the time, the government had weakened FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group, but it proved resilient in the most stateless parts of the country -- the vast jungles and plains encompassing more than half of Colombia's territory, but less than a quarter of its population.

Launched most ambitiously in the La Macarena region south of Bogotá in 2007, Integrated Action now operates in 13 conflict zones throughout Colombia. The Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action, an agency in the Colombian presidency, oversees troops' entry to clear these zones of guerrillas and then monitors the phased and highly coordinated arrival of nation-building forces: police, judges, road-builders, and land-titlers. At least, that's how the plan is presented in the PowerPoint slides.

In La Macarena, one of FARC's most important rearguards, Integrated Action scored some important initial successes. By mid-2008, the Army had quickly cleared guerrillas from most town centers. A massive eradication campaign sharply reduced the zone's coca crop. The region's small town centers saw quick-impact projects such as road-building, school repairs, and military "health brigades." Delegations of U.S. officials were able to visit towns that had been the virtual capitals of an independent FARC republic, leading some to hail Integrated Action as a counterinsurgency model for Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But 2009 has proven more complicated in La Macarena. Although FARC is still weaker than when the program began, a counteroffensive in the zone's rural areas has made road travel unadvisable, leaving the relatively secure towns as islands in a sea of guerrilla influence. Ambushes, bombings, land-mine deaths, and forced recruitment (especially of minors) have increased.

Meanwhile, Colombia's civilian government has yet to show up. Short on resources or skeptical of the model, ministries charged with building roads, teaching students, providing medical care, and handing out land titles are lagging way behind the soldiers. The lack of civilian participation is making the "hold" strategy much harder than the "clear" strategy. It also promises a very undesirable outcome: soldiers serving as schoolteachers, construction workers, health-care providers, and even community development planners.

Interviews with people on Integrated Action's receiving end highlight other obstacles. Communities complain that they are not consulted, that plans are "handed down from a desk in Bogotá." Mayors, governors, and other local leaders, many suspected of corruption or ties to illegal armed groups, can be unreliable partners. As agriculture officials refuse to distribute land titles, small farmers worry that Integrated Action is part of a massive "land grab" that will add them to Colombia's huge internally displaced population. And the counterinsurgents' own actions, such as indiscriminate arrests of suspected guerrilla collaborators and unpunished human rights abuses, further weaken the government's standing. Forced coca eradication, especially when it is not coordinated with food-security and income-generation assistance, damages trust still further.

Integrated Action does demonstrate that the U.S. government has learned from its counterinsurgency mistakes. But the program's difficulties are a reminder of how hard state-building truly is. Put simply: The model is not there yet. And this is Colombia, a country with far stronger governmental institutions than Afghanistan, and with a president, Álvaro Uribe, who has spent seven years obsessively focused on fighting FARC. Not everyone may like Uribe, but nobody is throwing around the same sorts of charges that have dogged Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- incompetence, a lack of decisiveness, tolerance of gross corruption -- for years.

Integrated Action is not an off-the-shelf model for Afghanistan, a country with tribal and religious divisions and a central government in which U.S. officials have much less confidence. To the contrary: Colombia's Integrated Action experience makes clear that if the goal now is to help Afghanistan govern its territory, an 18-month "surge" could end up being only a down payment on a much larger commitment.

JUAN MANUEL BARRERO/AFP/Getty Images