Denmark had a good reputation for dairy products in 1961 when the nonsensical Danish-sounding name was coined. Nations have to grapple with the pros and cons of reputational risks.
LONDON • Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing just fine at home: his popularity remains sky-high, and he treated the world this summer to his by-now-familiar pictures of him hunting, fishing or hiking, all performed in his trademark bare-chested macho style.
But abroad, Russia's reputation is nosediving. According to recent studies by the Pew Research Centre, a United States-based "fact-tank" which provides some of the most authoritative statistics on the opinion of nations, 40 per cent of respondents around the world now have an unfavourable view of Russia; in key parts of Europe and the Middle East, the number of those viewing Russia in a negative light approaches 80 per cent.
But that's nothing in comparison to what happened to the global reputation of the United States since President Donald Trump took over. Pew's researchers indicate that, while a decade ago two-thirds of respondents worldwide had favourable opinions of the US, today barely half the world does.
Nor are people hopeful about the future; 38 per cent of Asians - the highest such figure in the world - expect their countries' relations with the US to get worse in the next few years, and only 17 per cent dare hope for the better.
Yet, if you are tempted to assume that Russia and the US are somehow special cases, think again, for the global reputation of China is also in decline.
Unlike the US or Russia, a median of 47 per cent across the 38 countries surveyed by Pew recently still have a favourable opinion of China, as against an aggregate of 37 per cent who express an unfavourable view. But these totals are elevated by high rates of support for China in the African continent; in other key parts of the world, the Chinese are not doing well at all in the popularity stakes.
This is particularly so in places like South Korea, where a decade ago two-thirds of the public entertained favourable views of China but today only a third of the public does.
In Indonesia, 73 per cent had a favourable opinion of China but only half of the population does so today and, more predictably, in places like Vietnam or Japan, where only one in 10 of the public has a favourable view of China today.
Surveys of this kind are interesting, and they make for fascinating discussions around a dinner table.
DO SURVEYS MATTER?
But do they actually make the slightest bit of difference to hard power realities? Do they really matter to the way governments behave? Strategy experts have debated these questions for years, and are nowhere near a consensus.
Reputations do have an impact on the way countries act, and often in unforeseen ways. A country's reputation is, in essence, the perceptions that people elsewhere hold about its standing in the world. There is no uniformly correct way to measure it.
What can be said, however, with some degree of certainty is that reputations do have an impact on the way countries act, and often in unforeseen ways. A country's reputation is, in essence, the perceptions that people elsewhere hold about its standing in the world. There is no uniformly correct way to measure it.
Another survey launched by US News and World Report, an American media company, in conjunction with a consultancy firm and a group of distinguished academics from the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, grades countries according to a variety of specific factors such as quality of life, entrepreneurship and business, as well as culture and heritage and came up with very different overall rankings.
This put Switzerland in top position as the world's "best country", Japan in the fifth place, the US in seventh, Singapore in the 15th slot and China only in the 20th. Interestingly, however, even this ranking also recorded drops in popularity for key countries such as the US and Russia.
In addition, one should not confuse the reputation of individual leaders with the reputation of their countries. While one clearly affects the other - Mr Trump's America is a classic example of this - they are not necessarily the same.
According to the Pew surveys, Mr Putin's popularity is less than half that of the nation he rules. And while China's President Xi Jinping is doing better than Mr Putin, that's not by very much: while overall only 37 per cent of the Pew surveys' respondents have a negative opinion of China, no less than 53 per cent are negative about Mr Xi.
And it is clearly possible for a nation to have a "split personality" reputation. Just look at Japan, which is on the one hand associated with economic decline, an ageing population and dysfunctional, fractured domestic politics but is at the same time admired for its food, fashion design, industrial precision and the politeness of its people. In short, cumulative numbers don't tell a single story.
REPUTATIONS AND TRADE
Having said that, it is clear national reputations do matter to trade. Which luxury handbag would you consider more enticing: one made in France, or one - albeit exquisitely made - in, say, Lithuania?
Which precision instrument will command a premium: one engraved "Made in Japan", or one manufactured in Argentina? Why do we think that Haagen-Dazs, an ice-cream manufacturer from New York, invented a meaningless Danish-sounding name for its brand? And why did Lenovo, a Chinese computer manufacturer, prefer to adopt an equally meaningless Western-sounding brand name? Commercial brands like to piggyback on a country's good reputation.
And, as Professors Alex Weisiger from the University of Pennsylvania and Keren Yarhi-Milo from Princeton concluded in their recent trailblazing study on the topic, reputations also matter for governments' life-and-death decisions, especially for nations "that possess widespread commitments and interests" around the world. "Countries are more likely to be taken seriously and to get what they want when they have a history of following through on commitments and standing firm in the face of challenges," they write, in another way of explaining the importance of national reputations.
Still, the chase with regard to reputations does sometimes impose an unnecessary loss of life. The US retained its fighting troops in Vietnam for years after it became clear that the war was unwinnable, largely because it feared the hit on America's reputation. The Soviet Union did the same in Afghanistan, with equally disastrous effects.
And countries spend tens of billions of dollars on efforts to burnish their image, often to no long-term effect. Remember the Beijing 2008 Olympics?
They were followed by the award of a Nobel prize to a Chinese dissident, an empty chair at the prize ceremony in Norway and a publicity disaster for China. The 2012 Olympics? A great triumph for "brand Britain", now long-forgotten in the gloomy haze of Britain's planned departure from the European Union. And then, there are the 2016 Rio Olympics, supposed to be Brazil's coming-out party, but held when one former president was jailed for corruption, and another was impeached for the same alleged offences.
Much of what governments spend on improving their countries' branding, on "soft power" as the fashionable term puts it, is simply wasted; there is no evidence that the Confucius Institutes established by China around the world are any more successful at promoting a favourable image of the country, as there is no evidence that the British Council has somehow prevented an erosion of Britain's brand.
That does not mean that governments should ignore reputational risks. These do matter in economic affairs, and reputations are also important in a variety of other matters: a country which has a bad reputation is less likely to successfully negotiate visa-free travel for its citizens, less likely to become the venue for international conferences and conventions, and less likely to attract investment or tourism.
But politicians should resist reaching security decisions just in order to justify or boost their countries' reputations. And they should accept that there are severe limits to what governments can do to affect reputation.
For, as Professor Joseph Nye from Harvard who invented the term "soft power" to signify a country's international attraction once observed, far too many countries continue to "make the mistake of thinking that government is the main instrument of soft power" where, in fact, "the best propaganda is no propaganda".
Besides, as the Pew Research Centre's surveys indicate, reputation is neither a zero-sum game, nor is it immutable. In every Pew survey, without exception, younger people were more sympathetic to Russia, China or the US, perhaps in part because they may be less familiar with these countries, but mostly because they wish to make up their own mind, rather than simply accept the verdict of previous generations.
So, countries which are now down in the popularity stakes may soon go up. Every incentive, therefore, for Mr Putin to return to his bare-chested antics next summer.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2017, with the headline 'Why a NY firm invented the name Haagen-Dazs for its ice cream'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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