Book Review: The Good Country Equation

Simon Anholt, The Good Country Equation: How We Can Repair the World in One Generation. Berrett-Koehler, 2020.

By: /
November 18, 2020
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Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Whether they are democracies or dictatorships, most countries are in a contest to succeed and to be seen as successful by their citizens. But what constitutes “success”?

In The Good Country Equation, Simon Anholt, a policy advisor to more than 50 governments, links national efforts to succeed to the need for global cooperation. He argues that too many countries look exclusively to what they can achieve just for themselves. Too many leaders, fairly elected or not, appeal only to their own publics and ignore humanity’s common causes and existential challenges. Anholt holds that politicians get it wrong, that publics want to see their country playing a positive role in the world. All politics are not local.

For Canadian who are convinced that our interests need an effective rules-based international system that today is in danger of eroding, this is something to care about. Anholt’s argument that success at home will be facilitated by acting internationally as a “good country” ought to be right up our alley.

Anholt has been advising the governments of overlooked countries — and most countries feel overlooked and misunderstood — on how they can stand out and attract investment, tourism and other opportunities for more than 25 years.

His solutions often show ingenuity and pragmatism. The Bhutanese feared their rich but fragile non-consumer culture risked being shredded by waves of tourists. Anholt urged the authorities to establish a costly visitors’ tax. The tax made the destination seem more prestigious, while keeping revenues high and curbing harm that mass tourism would have brought.

Anholt hesitated over Latvia’s wish to project itself as a more magnetic and picturesque destination, fearing its residual image of post-Soviet drabness would be tough to re-brand, so he persuaded his partners to concentrate just on promoting Riga as a must-visit Baltic city.

“Over time, Anholt came to believe that doing your best for the world also happens to earn a country international credit to its own benefit.”

Over time, Anholt came to believe that doing your best for the world also happens to earn a country international credit to its own benefit. In fact, one of the most effective ways for a country to change its image is to lead the international effort to tackle a problem that mars its own image.

He urged the government of Mexico, where then-president Felipe Calderón asked him to spend a whole year, to confront the country’s reputation for drugs, violence and corruption by becoming a protagonist in seeking international cooperation and solutions for their eradication.

He didn’t always succeed. He tried to convince the government of Kazakhstan to phase out oil and gas production and develop a green economy. But it seemed too counter-intuitive for officials addicted to the easier benefit of old-style energy profits. 

Wherever he worked, he urged governments to break down distinctions between domestic and international dimensions, between local and global, to embrace “with courage and imagination” the international dimension of national challenges.

Anholt’s globalist convictions put him in  opposition to what he calls the “histrionic nationalism” gaining sway with populist leaders. He deplores Brexit, which he attributes largely to “phantom empire syndrome,” and counts a mostly peaceful post-war Europe among the EU’s accomplishments. But he acknowledges the vivid emotional energy of national identities. He wants to make the reality of nationalism benign by prompting shared solutions for our existential global problems and by pooling sovereignty where required.

He eventually began to construct an evidence-based theory on what could constitute success for all nations together. He worked for years with experts in big data and in polling to construct a formula to rank countries’ success in doing so. This resulted in the “Good Country Index.” (Ireland, which beat Canada for a Security Council seat, is ranked first.) His TED talk about it in 2014 was downloaded ten million times.

This led to requests for advice from international deciders and leaders such as the UN secretary-general and UN agency heads on what had become his Big Question: “Why doesn’t the world work?”

He accepts that the United Nations reflects a world in which multiple differences among nations defy easy solutions. Anholt calls for “entrepreneurial multilateralism” with coalitions of countries willing to lead both within the UN and outside of it — an endeavour that Canada is already pursuing with like-minded members of the so-called “Ottawa Group” that is working to reform the World Trade Organization.

“Canada has never sought out Anholt’s advice, but it might have been a good idea.”

Canada has never sought out Anholt’s advice, but it might have been a good idea. I know well from diplomatic postings in the under-informed United States and the condescension-prone United Kingdom that our international image could use some burnishing. A week after beginning my job as high commissioner in London in 2000, I was jarred by a story about Margaret Atwood in the the Sunday Times expressing surprise that a Canadian could be interesting. But, before long, Canadians were running the Bank of England, the Royal Mail and the Lawn Tennis Association, so possibly our reputation self-corrected. To merit a higher ranking in Simon Anholt’s Good Country Index, however, we’ll need to apply more of our competence to concrete challenges faced in the international community, rather than just signaling our virtue. Canada talks a lot about its commitment to UN peacekeeping, for example. It might instead put more troops and military assets on the table.

Anholt is a realist. He knows his Good Country project needs more support to have a real impact. But his work has also convinced him that people have more in common than they realize. His book gives a healthy lift to internationalists at a time when COVID and distrust span the globe.

The author likens education to a vaccine that might combat that distrust and division. He urges us to stop vowing to leave the world in a better state for our children and instead work to leave our children in a better state to fix the world. Hopefully the younger demographic cohorts of Millennials and “Generation Z” that are becoming the majority everywhere are ready to take up the challenge.