If we ever stopped to think about it, each of us holds a subconscious league table of nations in our heads. Some of this has to do with proximity and knowledge – we might have more trust and affection for Portugal or Peru if we had visited either, for example. More has to do with associations of integrity, which is why we would be more likely to welcome a new Covid-19 vaccine made in Japan than one developed in Russia.
Simon Anholt, who coined the idea of “nation branding”, spent a unique career advising the leaders of 55 countries how they might move up this notional league table. Some of his challenges – Albania, Mongolia – were tougher than others. In a new book, The Good Country Equation, he shares some of the lessons he learned. One is that propaganda may work internally in countries, but never externally. Another is that a country’s status is transformed largely by “symbolic actions” that capture the world’s attention. Broadly, collaborative and creative actions enable a country “to trade at a premium”; insular and nationalistic actions have the opposite effect.
In the past week, I have been reading Anholt’s book with the news, depressingly, on and off in the background. What, in Anholt’s analysis, might be among the toughest symbolic actions for any nation to recover from? Disregarding international law is up there. Making loud and demonstrably false claims about unique national virtue also figures. Anholt doesn’t have a factor in his equation that measures the impact of holding a continent’s freight for two days at a newly imposed border and then blaming the continent, but you guess he might soon have to add one.
Make them wait
On Thursday lunchtime, I was in a restaurant in west London waiting to interview the writer Jung Chang. The author of Wild Swans did not appear at the appointed time and not for an hour or so afterwards. As someone with a diehard compulsion for punctuality, I am always secretly thrilled by the audacity of unexplained lateness so I was genuinely disappointed to discover that Jung Chang’s non-appearance was the result of an honest email mix-up rather than any habitual insouciance.
Sitting there, I was reminded of the last time I had been kept waiting for a lunch interview. A few years ago, I pitched up in a nondescript Parisian cafe and announced in bad French the unlikely news that I was there to meet Juliette Binoche. The proprietor clearly thought I was insane, the more so as many, many, many long minutes ticked by before, at my guest’s smiley and unapologetic entrance, I caught his eye.
Looking at the reproductions of Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel, which is being offered for sale by Sotheby’s with a guide price of $80m, you wonder exactly how that figure is conjured up. The auction house offers some predictable lines to justify it – “Our Young Man is 550 years old, but he looks like he could have wandered into our galleries this morning…” – but, still. My theory is this: the price of old master portraiture is pegged to another commodity with comparable interest for billionaires. The last time Botticelli’s painting was sold at auction, in 1982, it went for £810,000, then the going price of the most coveted footballer. Today, a Premier League star with flowing locks and a roundel under his arm – Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, say – would still cost an interested oligarch the same as a Botticelli. Sotheby’s transfer window opens in January.
• Tim Adams is an Observer columnist