Insights – Simon Anholt

Simon Anholt is an independent policy advisor who has worked with the Heads of State and Heads of
Government of 56 nations to help improve their economic, political and cultural engagements with
the international community, and by raising their profiles, to enhance their trade, tourism, diplomatic
and cultural relations, talent and investment attraction. He is the world’s leading expert on national
image and the inventor of the term ‘nation brand’.

Anholt publishes the Good Country Index, a study measuring the impact of each of 163 countries
on the rest of humanity and the planet. His TED talk launching the first edition of the GCI has passed
ten million views and has been ranked by TED viewers as the fourth ‘most inspiring’ ever published.
He is the founder and publisher of the annual Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index and City
Brands Index, which since 2005 has used a panel of 20,000 people in 20 countries to monitor
global perceptions of 50 countries and 50 cities.

Anholt’s latest book, The Good Country Equation, was published in 2020 and has been described
by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN’s previous Commissioner on Human Rights, as “a masterpiece”.


Potolicchio: Since you have finished The Good Country Equation what's the most provocative comment you have received from a reader? 

A reviewer on Amazon who wrote: “It left me wondering why, if Mr Anholt has been the adviser to over 50 governments, the world is so messed up.” An interesting question. Obviously this is partly because last time I checked there were 205 countries on the planet so I’ve advised less than a quarter of them. But it’s mainly because, although many of them have changed policies, very few of them have changed direction. Even the ones who have changed their views more deeply are only in office for a few years, and their successors tend to change everything back again. That’s the main reason why I changed direction myself back in 2014, launched the Good Country Index and started focusing on engaging with populations as well as politicians: real change must come from both sides.

Potolicchio: What is something that you are confident about, but most people would dismiss?

That we’ll make it. Humanity has a notorious habit of not changing until it becomes painfully obvious that it needs to change, and the clock isn’t quite at 11.59 pm yet. But there’s a risk of complacency here, because of the lag of around a decade between CO2 emissions and temperature change: which means that ‘nearly too late’ may be already too late.

On the whole though I’m super hopeful and super optimistic these days, mainly because this is a wonderful moment to be discussing these topics. Everyone is suddenly interested and there’s far less complacency on either side of any of the big debates. Everyone is anxious and this can help them to listen. And underpinning this is the very obvious fact that each new generation is more internationally aware than the previous one.

I’m not bothered by the so-called “rising tide of nationalism”: I fully understand and sympathise with nationalists (except when the nationalism is based on feeling superior to other nations), and I don’t at all accept that it’s bad or wrong or incompatible with saving the planet or achieving universal peace and stability. I am troubled by the kind of populism that has no principles attached to it aside from acquiring and retaining power; on the other hand I fully endorse the kind of populism that makes important and complex topics – especially international topics – accessible and relevant to everyone everywhere.

Potolicchio: What is the question we are not asking that we should be asking?

Since we know the answers to every one of the grand challenges currently facing humanity, why are most of them not getting fixed?

My answer is that it’s simply a lack of resources: because these challenges are thoroughly globalised, no single country has the resources to tackle them on its own (and even if it does manage to defeat one problem in its own territory, for example a pandemic or drug trafficking, it will only pop up somewhere else). It takes sustained collaboration between nations to implement the solutions to our problems, but nations are programmed to compete first and only co-operate unwillingly, too little, too late and in a very patchy way. This is why the core belief behind everything I do is that what’s needed for humanity to survive and prosper is “a change in the culture of governance worldwide, from fundamentally competitive to fundamentally collaborative.”

As I explain in The Good Country Equation, collaborating does not involve losing competitive advantage, losing sovereignty or losing identity (or losing the next election for the politicians that practise it, for that matter): it actually produces better policies and better outcomes both domestically and internationally. My research shows that the countries which work hardest on behalf of all humanity and the planet are the ones that people admire most; and a positive image attracts more tourism, more investment, more talent, more respect, and boosts exports. It turns out that for countries as well as companies, doing good and doing well are the same thing.

Potolicchio: What is a trait that will become increasingly important for young professionals?

Not just young professionals, but young people in general need to learn to run towards the global challenges instead of running away from them as previous generations have done. This isn’t a simple matter of “teaching them about climate change” or “teaching them global citizenship” – those approaches certainly help but we need to do it on a much bigger scale. Since every problem facing humanity today is caused by the behaviour of people, we are going to have to change humanity in order to change the world. You can only do that through education.

That’s why I’m currently launching the project which I describe in The Good Country Equation which I call the Good Generation: it’s a plan for the whole world to have a big online conversation and agree on a single set of values and virtues that we want the next generation to grow up with. Then we write this into a new Global Compact (a little bit like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the UN Charter) which all the world’s education ministers will sign. It’s definitely the right moment to start doing this systematically and universally, instead of piecemeal, country by country and topic by topic: we know that education works, but it needs to work everywhere, now.

Potolicchio: What's a signature travel hack that has worked well for you during your career?

Fear of flying (which I describe in minute and agonising detail in the book). It makes every trip an epic act of heroism, every departure an ego-shattering ordeal, and every arrival a celebration of life itself. (It also makes me quite effective at negotiating fees, because deep down inside I really, really, don’t want to go.)

Potolicchio: You finished this book just as the pandemic was surging. Has Covid altered any of your arguments or simply magnified them?

For me, it has proved the perfect illustration of why we need more globalisation (of the right kind of course), not less. It has also made people all over the world feel truly more connected than, for example, climate change has so far been able to do. For this reason I think the pandemic has helped the fight against climate change by illustrating far more dramatically and urgently than climate change has yet been able to do, that we are a single species inhabiting a single planet, that we are all interconnected and interdependent, and that we must start acting as one if we’re to get ourselves out of the mess we’re in.

However, I note to my sadness that people everywhere seem to be losing the ability to change their minds, and this is seriously worrying. All the people who went into the pandemic believing that globalisation is a bad thing are now more than ever convinced of their position: without globalisation of course the virus would never have left China. And all the people who went into it believing that multilateralism is a good thing have seen ample evidence that we need more multilateralism to tackle such issues more effectively. Of course they’re both right but that’s not the point: the point is, how can we reconcile those two truths into a set of effective and acceptable solutions?

In other words, my greatest fear is that we may have failed to learn anything much even from this very, very hard lesson.

Potolicchio: What question should I have asked you and what's the answer?

Why didn’t you write The Good Country Equation as a straightforward statement of your philosophy? Why all the funny stories?

It was very important to me that if I was going to write a book about “the state of the world”, it should be one that people can read without needing a PhD in international relations or economics: this is truly a subject for everybody, and yet most of the books on the subject tend to be very dense, very depressing textbooks written by and for academics.

So I decided to write my book as a tragico-comical autobiographical travelogue, which follows my own career over 20 years advising the Presidents, Prime Ministers and monarchs of 56 countries, and shares some of the funny, dangerous and touching experiences I’ve had whilst doing that job. With each new country, a new piece fits into the puzzle of my understanding of the world, and the real reasons why we can’t make it work; and the last chapters are dedicated to the projects I’m running to help make it work better (one of my favourite episodes from the book was how I learned an important lesson about international trade flows by getting locked in a palace lavatory in Bhutan).

My intention was that it should be actually fun to read, and as un-put-down-able as a good adventure story. Early feedback suggests that this might just have worked!