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).