The Good Country: How Can Countries Harmonize Their Domestic and International Responsibilities?

Top Row (L to R): Panelists Simon Anholt, Uffe Elbaek, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba

Global problems clearly require global solutions. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us more strongly than ever of this fact. Each individual country is unable to solely look inwards to take care of their own citizens. International cooperation is vital when it comes to containing the spread, sharing innovative testing strategies, and developing and distributing the vaccine. There is no doubt that the sheer scale of suffering brought about by the pandemic reminds us of the importance of strengthening multilateral cooperation.

The global nature of this pandemic is not unique, especially in the face of other seemingly insurmountable global challenges like climate change. From the lessons learnt during our response to COVID-19, how will we reimagine the relationship between the individual country and the rest of the world to be one that emphasizes effective cooperation?

On February 24, 2021, the Good Society Forum hosted a webinar on exactly this topic. Entitled “Good Country/Good Society: Can We Have Both?,” the webinar featured Simon Anholt, Independent Policy Advisor to the Heads of State and Governments of 57 countries and author of The Good Country Equation; Uffe Elbæk, Member of the Danish Parliament and Founder of the political party The Alternative; and Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, Deputy Secretary General, Commonwealth Secretariat, 2008–2014. The panelists each brought their own unique take on the how countries, both rich and poor, can manage the tricky task of harmonizing domestic and international responsibilities.

As Simon Anholt states, the pandemic has humbled us greatly and has above all emphasized our shared humanity — “It doesn’t matter where you live or how you get your news, you see human beings in other parts of the world suffering in the same way.” In line with the argument formulated in his book The Good Country Equation, Anholt brings to attention the fact that countries care about how they are regarded by international public opinion. When highly regarded, countries are able to attract more investment, more talent, more tourists, and thrive economically off of a good image. By measuring people’s perceptions of other countries, he concludes that the countries that are admired most are the ones that contribute most to the world. Thus, the gold standard of good governance must be one that views policymaking through an international lens. However, the DNA of a nation-state, Anholt admits, is constructed in such a way that countries do not find it natural to collaborate. In an age that overemphasizes competition between countries, Anholt believes that we need a mix of the two — a culture of governance that cares about being fundamentally cooperative just as much as it focuses on competition with others for the purposes of innovation.

To measure the impact of a country outside its own borders, Anholt proposes seven indicators including contributions in peace and security, in planet and climate, in trade, and in education. All countries — regardless of wealth — need to start worrying about the world beyond its own borders. By reframing our conversation around what a “good country” is, we can begin tackling the biggest challenges facing humanity today.

When policymakers see their domestic responsibilities through international lenses, we actually see better policy. It may seem counter-intuitive at first, as some may believe that countries need to compromise or sacrifice domestic priorities in order to contribute to the world at large. By considering the international consequences of their national behaviors, countries tend to act more realistically and productively given the long-term impacts of their actions. Uffe Elbæk brings in expertise from his background as a Danish politician, innovator, and activist. Instead of thinking of ways to make Denmark the best country in the world, Elbæk focuses on how to make Denmark the best country for the world. This distinction is an important one, as it underlines the principles behind much of Danish policymaking. In formulating a good society post-economic collapse in 1813, Denmark pivoted to an approach to absolutely invest in the common good. With this emphasis, Denmark was able to create strong communities of people who come together in meaningful ways to solve concrete issues. He believes this to be a pivotal transformation in domestic governance that should translate on the international level, thus posing the question on how we can learn from Denmark’s past to introduce an investment in the common good to countries all around the world?

At the end of the day, the focus on building a good domestic society and acting as a good country for the world may seem like a chicken-and-egg problem. As raised by Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, a good country and a good society are mutually enforcing. Masire-Mwamba brings in Botswana as a case study. Similar to the story of Denmark, Botswanan leaders placed a heavy emphasis on collective responsibility post-independence. In pursuit of creating a thriving society and country while surrounded by huge superpowers, Botswana focused on building up human resources and using education as a tool to bolster civil society. The country’s people banded together to help build a strong education sector. It abided by the principles of Ubuntu and placed a social contract of respect and accountability at the core of its mission. It is exactly in this spirit that Masire-Mwamba mentions the importance of global coordination for the common good. A good society ingrained with concern for shared humanity and universal values is one that contributes to transnational efforts and dialogues to combat modern challenges.

In our current system, it is entirely possible and all too common for countries to only focus on domestic priorities with no regard for issues beyond its borders. As Anholt states, the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to the crisis have hopefully shaken us out of our complacency and shown us that we are “members of the human race first and citizens of our nations second.” One thing is clear — no nation is an island unconnected to the rest of the humanity. The pandemic has been an extraordinary test run of the effectiveness of transnational coordination as it stands today. The jury is still out on how we have fared thus far, and we can only hope that the conversations sparked by the pandemic spur us to create a more sustainable, more collaborative international system for future generations.

Watch the webinar on Youtube here.

By Muriel Wang

The Good Society Forum is a community of change-makers around the world with a common quest to building the good society.

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