Growing anxieties about possible economic slowdowns. The possibility of a future trade war between the world’s two largest economies. Rising public anger at tech conglomerates and governments about digital security. The accelerating pace of global warming that is exceeding scientists’ predictions. Continued wars, record numbers of refugees, growing levels of inequality and the looming Brexit.
As 2019 begins, there are plenty of reasons to believe the world is on the cusp of coming apart.
[ MORE: 5 Global Events to Watch in 2019]
Those worries and more may best explain this year’s results of an annual global study showing that the most strongly held convictions by people center around the desire for certainty, rights, diversity and free trade.
Switzerland maintains its No. 1 overall position in the rankings for the third consecutive year in the 2019 Best Countries rankings, the annual report based on a worldwide survey of more than 20,000 people. Japan now ranks No. 2 overall, a move up of three positions from 2018. Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom round out the top five, followed by Sweden, Australia, the United States, Norway and France.
[ MORE: The Top 25 Countries in the World]
In one of the most notable findings, the world’s level of trust in the U.S. has declined for the third consecutive year.
The trustworthiness of a country is one of the survey questions used to develop the Best Countries’ citizenship sub-ranking, a measure of how well a country is seen to care about various values such as human rights, gender equality, religious freedom and the environment. When the Best Countries rankings debuted in 2016, the U.S. ranked 17 th in the attribute, and has since fallen each year to its current ranking at 27 th.
The Best Countries rankings are formed in partnership between U.S. News & World Report, BAV Group (a unit of global marketing communications company VMLY&R) and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The rankings are based on a study that surveyed people about their views of 80 countries on 75 different metrics.
Notable findings from the Best Countries report include:
— The Nordic model remains highly regarded: Nordic nations dominate in “soft power” attributes, with Norway, Sweden and Finland in the top five for citizenship, and Sweden, Denmark and Norway in the top five for quality of life.
— Anxieties over digital privacy: About 77 percent believe their “internet privacy is at risk” and 83 percent would like a global set of internet standards. Just over half say that they trust private companies to keep their personal data safe.
— Fake news?: About 63 percent of respondents say there no longer are objective news sources for the public.
— A divisive internet: About two-thirds of global respondents, 66 percent, say internet news and content is dividing us rather than uniting us.
— Business leaders and civic responsibility: Roughly 5 out of 6 respondents, 84 percent, say CEOs and business leaders should be vocal and transparent about their views on societal issues and how to help solve them.
— Safety: Just 35 percent of respondents believe that “the world is safe.” The belief in a safe world is lowest among people 55 and older — just 24 percent.
Why Switzerland is No. 1
Switzerland is seen as excelling in many areas in the Best Countries report, such as business-oriented metrics, providing a high quality of life and being a leader in innovation. Respondents in the Best Countries survey consider Switzerland the top country in terms of economic stability, access to capital, a strong legal framework and prestige.
With a history of neutrality stretching centuries, the country has four official languages, reflecting its geographic crossroads. “It’s had to, over the centuries, develop a way that cultures can work together,” says Dan Hamilton of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
[ MORE: Learn More About Switzerland]
The country ranks highly in other international studies that examine countries and their citizens’ sense of well-being. Those attributes, as well as being seen as a neutral, stable place, resonate internationally in today’s age.
“It’s carved out a brand internationally, one of quality and impartiality,” says Hamilton, who holds the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Professorship at SAIS. “It plays a major mediation role, hosts several U.N. agencies and is influential culturally.”
Switzerland has developed what Hamilton calls an “innovation economy,” one that in large part succeeds because, like Germany and Scandinavian nations, it does a good job of channeling its education system into employment, no matter the level of schooling.
Switzerland does, however, face challenges. The country’s innovation model depends on the free flow of ideas internationally, especially since its institutions outsource much of its research and development to agencies in the U.S.
Right-wing politics have grown in popularity, as public worries grow over immigration. The country has a decentralized political system among its 26 cantons, and one study has found that among developed countries Switzerland reports the lowest percentage of voting-eligible people who cast ballots in a national election.
Even the Swiss-made watch, an iconic symbol of the country, faces new threats from competitors such as the tech giant Apple, which is selling more watches. And as 2018 wound down, Swiss officials warned that the country’s institutions were facing threats of cyberattacks from Russia.
Japan: A Sun Rising in the East
Japan’s rise in the Best Countries report is due in large part to how highly regarded it is for its sense of entrepreneurship, the most heavily weighted component of the Best Countries rankings. The country ranks at the top of that metric, and also is considered the most forward-looking country in the world.
Elsewhere, the world regards Japan highly for providing a healthy environment for its people, for having an economy on the rise and for being generally influential, particularly through its distinctive culture.
The coming year will be critical for Japan, says professor Takahara Akio, the dean of the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo. The U.S. is the country’s most important ally, yet uncertainty over Washington’s foreign policy, particularly its economic relationship with China, is stirring anxiety among Japan’s leaders, Akio says.
Tokyo is concerned about China’s military rise in Asia, and those worries have led to a shifting of power dynamics around the Pacific Rim as the U.S. is seen to be retreating from its prominent leadership role, says T.J. Pempel, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in East Asia.
More steps will be taken by Japan and China this year to overcome their historical enmity and increase ties, Pempel says. “Abe’s hedging (on U.S. relations) by improving relations with China.”
Adds Akio: “There’s a ray of hope — a feeling that we have to do something to increase mutual trust.”
Any increased trade battle between the U.S. and China will adversely affect a Japanese economy that is seeking to boost its shrinking workforce by changing immigration rules to attract international workers. Those workers will bring new challenges for a relatively homogenous society, Akio says.
“We’re not used to so many foreigners … the possible social problems, the way they can integrate in the society, those all need to be managed. The local autonomous governments must be prepared.”
Elsewhere, Japanese leaders are preparing to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, and public anticipation is growing over the April abdication by Emperor Akihito, stepping down from the throne of the world’s oldest continuing monarchy. The 85-year-old Akihito will hand over the throne to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito. It is the first abdication by a Japanese monarch in 200 years.
“Since this doesn’t happen so often — the emperor is a symbol of national unity — the significance is rather big,” Akio says.
What Matters Most to People
Five new countries enter the rankings this year: Belgium, Estonia, Iraq, Lithuania and Slovakia. Belgium ranks highest of those countries at No. 17, benefiting from how the world views its citizenship and quality of life.
[ MORE: Learn More About the 5 New Countries]
Each year, countries shift positions in the Best Countries rankings, which are developed by surveying people around the world to find out how closely they associate countries with a set of attributes, or descriptive terms that are relevant to the success of a modern nation.
Additional questions gauge perceptions of the state of the world today. Among the statements in the survey drawing the highest level of agreement among survey respondents:
— Women should be entitled to the same rights as men — 90 percent;
— It’s important to promote diversity and tolerance — 86 percent;
— Free trade is important for the global economy — 86 percent;
— Free trade is important for my country’s economy — 86 percent.
— The gap between the rich and poor in my country is growing — 85 percent;
For 10 interesting facts from the Best Countries survey, click here.
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Switzerland and Japan Are the World’s Best Countries originally appeared on usnews.com