Friday, November 30, 2007

Denmark's Good Name

Just back from Billund and the annual conference of the Invest in Denmark agency, where the discussions were about Denmark's image in the world, its profile in developing countries, the links between public diplomacy and investment promotion, and the importance of the 2009 UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen.

Denmark is a good example of a country which might easily fall into the trap of thinking that its national image is virtually as good as it can be, and there's little point in worrying about it. But of course this would be a mistake, for two main reasons:

1. Denmark is well known and highly reputed in its immediate neighbourhood, and for several centuries its good name has made commercial, cultural, social and political relations easy and pleasant within that neighbourhood. But suddenly, along comes globalisation, and Denmark finds that it's no longer competing and trading with its neighbours, but with countries on the other side of the world, where its history and identity are virtually unknown. Of course, Denmark has the 'Scandinavian premium' (because Scandinavia is a powerful international "brand"), but in the countries where many of Denmark's future trading partners, tourists, consumers and strategic partners will come from - notably China, India, Brazil and Russia - the country itself is relatively unknown. Used to being well-known and respected, this is a difficult concept for Denmark to adjust to: but adjust it must.

2. Denmark's image in the global popular imagination is, like the images of most countries, rooted in its past. Its story is one of an overwhelmingly white, prosperous, Protestant population carrying on in that effective, egalitarian, social-democratic way that it has for centuries. But of course the story is no longer true, and excludes an ever larger part of the population. This way trouble lies: nobody likes living in a country which still presents itself to the world - and is regarded by the world - as the kind of country where people like them couldn't possibly live.

Denmark's image took a battering last year as a result of the cartoons crisis, a subject I have written about elsewhere. The Nation Brands Index suggests that most of the fallout from this sorry episode is now over, and in most countries Denmark's ranking is as high, or indeed higher, than it was before the cartoons were published. But Denmark learned an important lesson from the cartoons: in today's world, countries are no longer considered as loose collections of different groups - the government, the media, businesses, ordinary people, famous people - but as single players on a global stage. If one component offends, the whole national entity is likely to be implicated. It's not fair, it's not clever and it's not logical, but it's the way public opinion works.

And this tendency of globalisation to reduce the complexity and diversity of countries to simple, one-dimensional 'brands', creates enormous problems for democratic governance. It is unthinkable for a liberal, secular, democratic state in the modern world to attempt to control the actions and communications of all its stakeholders; and yet the consequences of the actions and communications of a single stakeholder, public or private, are apt to have a profound impact on the shared reputation of all.

That reputation, as Denmark discovered to its cost, is the most precious asset of a country in the age of globalisation. As Iago says in Shakespeare's Othello,

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

(Othello, Act 3, scene 3, 155–161)

Shakespeare speaks of personal reputation within society, but the point is no less true of national reputation within what some people hopefully call the 'community of nations'.

Under the tyranny of international public opinion, what is diverse becomes homogeneous and what is complex becomes simple. In order to live at peace with others and tolerate or even enjoy their differences, it is essential to particularise, but the fatal tendency of humanity is always to generalise.