Russia’s soft power reputation has plummeted globally in the wake of its the invasion of Ukraine, says the latest iteration of the Global Soft Power Index 2023, a ranking conducted by brand evaluation consultancy Brand Finance using a representative sample of 100,000-plus respondents in more than 100 markets worldwide (measuring perceptions of 121 nation brands).

Although Russia’s ‘familiarity and influence’ (as coined by the ranking) went up over the past 12 months, given the global impact and publicity of the invasion, its reputation has been severely damaged. In fact, Russia’s overall ‘reputation’ score, one of the main determinants of soft power, fell from 23rd to an abysmal 105th, causing it to drop out of the index’s overall top ten (to 13th place). 

The world’s most influential soft powers now rank as: the US, the UK, Germany, Japan, China, France, Canada, Switzerland, Italy and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in that order. 

“While nations have turned to soft power to restore trade and tourism after a devastating health crisis, the world order has been disrupted by the hard power of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” said David Haigh, chairman and CEO of Brand Finance. “[The invasion is] an event that would be hard to believe were it not for the intensity of the images we have been seeing for months and the consequences the conflict is having on politics and the economy alike.”

On the flip side, Ukraine’s soft power has risen dramatically. While it does not sit in the overall top ten, the country ranks third in the world for the ‘affairs I follow closely’ category, while also rapidly improving its position in the following departments: ‘respects law and human rights’ , ‘tolerant and inclusive’, ‘leader in technology and innovation’, and ‘internationally admired leaders’, the last of which is a credit to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. On the other hand, Ukraine’s reputation in other departments has fallen due to the war, namely in the ‘safe and secure’ and ‘great place to visit’ categories. 

US unrivalled as the soft power superpower

Under President Joe Biden, the US has reclaimed its top spot in the Global Soft Power Index. With the strengthening of the dollar and the federal government’s widely publicised large-scale investment projects, perceptions of the US economy are on the up.

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The US maintained stable scores across most categories. However, mounting problems with gun crime and police violence continue to erode perceptions of the country as ‘safe and secure’ (down from 21st in 2020 to 62nd this year) and of its people as ‘friendly’ (down from fifth in 2020 to 103rd this year). 

In the UK, 2022 will be remembered as the end of an era. The passing of Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 96, after 70 years on the throne, shook the nation. At the same time, intense media coverage of the period of mourning and the monarch’s spectacular funeral attended by the world’s leaders reminded the global public of the UK’s greatest soft power assets. The UK has defended its second position in the index this year, recording increases across a number of attributes, from ‘good relations with other countries’ to ‘appealing lifestyle’.

Last year will also go down in British history for it having three prime ministers. After the fall of Boris Johnson’s government, Liz Truss shot to power as quickly as she lost it, then Rishi Sunak took over in Number 10 Downing Street. While the country’s overall reputation has not been dented, perceptions of the UK as ‘politically stable and well-governed’ declined relative to others.

Meanwhile, a post-Angela Merkel Germany has held its own. Many worried about the country losing its international standing after her departure, but a year later the country’s soft power reputation has remained stable. Olaf Scholz’s government has struggled with criticism of its hesitant response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but this has had little impact on the country’s perception among the global public. Germany’s nation brand strength transcends political crises, proving its resilience regardless of who is in charge.

China retains “future growth potential” 

China saw marginal growth of its Global Soft Power Index score this year, leading it to drop one place in the overall ranking, with Japan overtaking in fourth place. 

While most countries accelerated their global engagement across trade, investment, tourism and talent, China remained closed in 2022, maintaining its ‘zero Covid’ policy. The reduced mental and physical availability of China’s nation brand among global audiences undermined its ability to improve perceptions at the same pace as competing economies, resulting in some relative declines.

Nevertheless, on many metrics China has largely defended its position from last year and it remains second in the world for ‘influence’ and third in ‘education and science’. The country also maintains its number one positions for ‘easy to do business in and with’ and ‘future growth potential’, pointing to the resilience of its business and trade credentials. Revised economic growth forecasts by the International Monetary Fund confirm that China is back in business in 2023, predicting 5.2% GDP growth.

UAE enters top ten for the first time

With otherwise little change in the top ten, the performance of the UAE is a standout. For the fourth year running the country achieved the highest score of any Middle Eastern nation brand, alongside a global increase in both the ‘reputation’ and ‘influence’ categories. 

“The UAE was one of the first economies to roll out mass vaccination and open during the Covid-19 pandemic, giving it a head start ahead of others and allowing it to maintain positive perceptions across the ‘business and trade’ pillar,” said Haigh. “The successful showcase of the UAE as a global trade hub thanks to Expo 2020 has also undoubtedly provided a significant boost. At the same time, the UAE is one of the largest donors of foreign aid as a percentage of GDP, which is recognised by the global general public counting it among the world’s most generous nations.”

Perceptions of the UAE’s ‘governance and international relations’ are on the up too. The Emirates Mars Mission has landed the UAE at eighth for ‘invests in space exploration’, while hosting the world’s most high-profile climate conference, COP 28, will put the nation firmly in the spotlight in 2023.