New Zealand falls in 'soft power' nation rankings due to 'COVID isolation policies', but still 'punching above weight'

New Zealand's isolationist COVID-19 policies have negatively affected international perceptions of Aotearoa, according to a new report on countries' reputations and global influence.

After being the fastest rising nation in last year's Global Soft Power Index from consultancy firm Brand Finance, New Zealand has dropped out of the top 20 in the latest report released this week. However, it said Aotearoa is still "very much punching above their weight". 

The index analyses responses from more than 100,000 people across more than 100 countries about different nations' levels of soft power. That's the ability to use reputation and standing to influence others around the world. Factors considered include the familiarity of a country's brand and performance in the likes of culture, trade, science and COVID-19.

New Zealand jumped from 22nd in the 2020 rankings to 16th last year, but has now fallen back to 21. After tumbling from the top spot last year, the United States is back at number one, followed by the United Kingdom and Germany. China has jumped from eighth to fourth, while Japan rounds out the top five. Australia has also fallen, down from 10 to 13.

In the report's foreword, Dr Paul Temporal, a world-leading expert in branding, said countries' responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have had a "substantial impact on the rankings".

He mentions the United States as a country that has seen its performance improve, pointing to changes under the Joe Biden administration from the response under Donald Trump. Others to score highly in this space include China, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

"By contrast, Australia and New Zealand see declines as COVID isolation policies adversely affect international perceptions," he wrote.

Both Australia and New Zealand have held their borders shut longer than many other countries. 

Earlier this month, as Omicron began to sweep through the community, New Zealand passed the US, the UK and the EU on per capita COVID-19 case peaks. However, the number of COVID-related deaths in Aotearoa remained small in comparison. 

The Government's border policy, which up until last month allowed only a small number of people to enter New Zealand, all of whom had to spend time in a managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility, has been praised in keeping cases down while vaccinations increased.

Just on Wednesday, New Zealand announced tourists would start being able to travel to Aotearoa again without any form of isolation from mid-April. That's earlier than what the Government planned.

It also previously brought forward the ability for Kiwis to return without isolating in recognition that the large number of cases in the community and high vaccination rates meant the move added little risk.

But the concept of 'fortress New Zealand' has been noted overseas, particularly in some right-wing media circles, and has been criticised for hindering the ability for Kiwis to reunite with family members and do business overseas.

New Zealand's response to the pandemic is still being praised.
New Zealand's response to the pandemic is still being praised. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The Global Soft Power Index report said both Australia and New Zealand "garnered a lot of praise for their effective responses" to COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic. 

"This year, they have been overtaken by other nations which rolled out their vaccination programmes quicker and opened their borders earlier," it said. 

"In addition, their COVID-induced retreat from the interconnectedness of the modern world has taken a toll on their perceptions in other areas of key significance to soft power."

A breakdown of the index's data shows New Zealand has seen score improvements in several areas, such as familiarity of brand and international relations. Its score on COVID-19 response is actually up, but hasn't increased as much as other countries. The data shows a fall in reputation, governance, culture and heritage, education and science, and people and values. 

"In 2021, New Zealand was hailed as a global success story as a result of its approach to the pandemic, ranking 1st in the Global Soft Power Index for its COVID-19 Response," the report said. 

"However, economic activity waned due to stringent lockdown measures and travel restrictions. The tourism sector was impacted with a dramatic drop in hotel bookings and retail sales. 

"New Zealand’s COVID-19 response continues to be recognised as exemplary, but the decline of the nation’s mental and physical availability around the world has caused its scores to fall in other areas."

David Downs, the chief executive of New Zealand Story, which promotes Aotearoa internationally, was interviewed for the report. 

He said while New Zealand "didn't get it all perfect" in our COVID-19 response, it was science-led, had clear communication and leadership, and was values-based. 

Tourism was among New Zealand's top export earners, he said, but it was also causing "significant issues and pressure on our infrastructure". 

"We are using this reset as an opportunity to build back better, and think more about the type of visitors we would most like to welcome here. The well-known Kiwi hospitality will always be there, but we also know that we have to balance the need for tourism dollars with having a sustainable impact on our environment – a key reason people come here in the first place."

Downs said that as a small nation, New Zealand understands it has "to use influence to impact world affairs" and demonstrate leadership.

"We benefit when everyone plays by the rules, so it’s in our interests to do the same, and to uphold international relations in a responsible and mature way. One lovely compliment we were paid as a nation was from Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, who said that New Zealand isn’t just good IN the world, we are good FOR the world. 

"That is a great description of how I think about our possible impact. We aspire to be a place where care for people, and a deep connection to our environment, is a key part of who we are – ideas with global appeal."

Saeed Mohammed Al Eter, the chairman of the United Arab Emirates' government media office, wrote in the report that New Zealand has shown that "assertive, effective, national leadership" should not be "scared to call on people to accept limitations for the greater good".

"The idea, of course, that collective responsibility should limit personal freedoms is a dangerous one, taking us back to the spectre of hard-core communist or autocratic ideologies – and yet this is precisely what New Zealand, a country that punches way above its weight with its soft power, has done."

He said it shows if a country is respected and admired, "people are more willing to accept its actions, to question them and seek answers and reason rather than instantly condemn them".