What Is a Trust Signal?
Let’s say you are interested in the topic of a book by an author you aren’t familiar with.
I like to write about trust. I also like to write about history. And so it's no surprise that the most popular post on this site is called, "Trust Me, These Are the 10 Greatest Countries in the History of the World."
That post points out that to have faith in accounts of history, and to make judgments about the greatest countries in the world based on those accounts, you must first have trust in the historians writing them. That's not always easy, because historians have their own biases and arguments to make.
There's a reason why U.S. President Woodrow Wilson—a history PhD, former history professor and president of Princeton University—called The Birth of a Nation, one of the most historically inaccurate and purposefully racist films ever made, "history written with lightning." It's because racists were writing our stories.
And so it is with current-day viewpoints. Facts are valuable, but they only get you so far. Someone has to tell you how to synthesize and interpret the facts.
This is a preamble to a post about the 20 most trustworthy countries in the world today. Before I continue, let me give you a chance to skip ahead to the bits you're most interested in if you'd like:
OK, now that we've attended to the impatient people, let me proceed.
I've seen a number of reports aiming to provide the evaluation of most trusted countries based on international surveys. Surveys are factual, of course, but it's also true that many of the results of a survey are dictated by the specific audience the pollster chooses and the way the questions are worded.
So I decided to create my own list and to simply explain the thinking behind it.
Why Earning the World's Trust Is Important
Why is an understanding of the most trustworthy countries important? Because just as with people and brands, it matters. Let's look in particular at some ways that trust (or lack of it) has impacted the United States:
Trust Signals That Influence a Country's Trustworthiness
As I began to dive into the question of trust in specific countries by foreigners, some common trust signals for evaluating trustworthiness emerged. These trust signals fall into six categories:
Data Sources for the 20 Most Trustworthy Countries
The 20 Most Trustworthy Countries in the World
OK, so here goes—
1 - Canada. Canada is in many ways what the world wishes the United States could be today. A turning point came in 2018, when Canada welcomed more refugees than any other country, according to the U.N., marking the first time in nearly 40 years that the U.S. did not lead the world in this category. In 1971, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy—ensuring that "all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry, and have a sense of belonging.” For the most part, they have remained true to that commitment, and the world has noticed. It doesn't hurt that Canada's culture is characterized by politeness, humility and understatement. U.S. News & World Report ranked Canada the best country in 2021 and most trusted country in 2020. Despite its generous social welfare system, Canada also ranks ninth in the conservative Heritage Foundation's Economic Freedom Index, 11 spots higher than the U.S.
2-6 - The Nordic Quintet. What is it about Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland, and why does so much of the world want to be like them? Finland, in particular, has ranked as the happiest country in world for the past four years—with the other Nordic countries all landing in the Top 10. The secret to their success: trust. People in these nations tend to trust each other and their social and political institutions more than those in other countries do. This has been attributed to everything from these nations' relative cultural homogeneity to their transparency in government and faith in their governments' capacity to serve the common good. The so-called "Nordic model" is widely viewed as the most effective socioeconomic model in the world. Three of the Nordic Quintet—Denmark, Norway and Sweden—are among only nine countries with AAA ratings from each of the three major credit rating agencies. The Nordic culture of openness, along with non-confrontational foreign policies in which its countries often serve as peacemakers in international disputes, has led to these nations being trusted—and envied—around the globe.
7 - Switzerland. For centuries—and through two devastating world wars—the European nation of Switzerland has adhered to a foreign policy of armed neutrality. Since 2008, the Swiss have been trusted to serve as a facilitator or mediator in more than 15 international peace negotiations. The country scores high in global rankings of political and economic stability, government transparency and quality of life. The tiny Alpine nation has been a frequent winner in U.S. News & World Report "Best Country" rankings and was named the second-most trusted country in the world in the publication's most recent survey. It ranks No. 1 in Blacktower's Quality of Life Index and is the second wealthiest country in the world per capita, after Luxembourg, per the IMF. It also boast a AAA credit rating from Moody's, Fitch and Standard and Poor's.
8-9 - Oceanian Twinsies. Australia and New Zealand are known for their adaptability, with Australia ranking second and New Zealand ninth in the "Agility" category in U.S. News & World Report's 2021 rankings. New Zealanders demonstrated these traits in 2020 by responding to the COVID-19 pandemic better than any country in the world, with the possible exception of Taiwan. The Oceanic twinsies are also notable for their free market policies, including their commitment to anti-nationalist policies such as free trade, as measured by the Heritage Foundation. The countries rank second and third on Heritage's Economic Freedom Index. Both countries rank in the Top 8 among the U.S. News & World Report's most-trusted countries, and Australia has a AAA from the three major credit agencies.
10 - Germany. Ranked No. 3 among "Best Countries" and in the Top 10 among U.S. News & World Report's most trusted countries, Germany is also third in Simon Anholt's Good Country Index and the seventh happiest country according to the 2021 World Happiness Report. Germany has stepped up to assume a larger role on the world stage in the wake of Brexit and the U.S.'s distancing from NATO in recent years. Germany is welcoming to immigrants (although this has been a source of controversy in recent years) and encouraging to business. Germany ranks No. 2 in U.S. News & World Report's "Entrepreneurship" category, indicating that it is "connected to the rest of the world," has an educated population, skilled labor force and well-developed laws and infrastructure. Germany also ranks No. 3 in the publication's "Transparency" category for its open business and government practices, and has a AAA rating from Moody's, Fitch and Standard and Poor's.
11 -13 - The Benelux Countries. Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg together represent less than 2 percent of the landmass of the European Union, but they have an enormous impact on the EU's economy and culture. The Belgian capital Brussels serves as the administrative center of the EU. The Dutch contribute a political culture of coalitions, compromise and consensus building. And prosperous Luxembourg is the wealthiest country per capita in the entire world. The Netherlands—the largest of the Benelux nations— ranks in the Top 10 among "Best Countries" and most-trusted nations and ranks fourth in the "Transparency" category. The Dutch also rank No. 5 in the Good Country Index, with Luxembourg landing at No. 11 and Belgium at No. 16. The Netherlands and Luxembourg are among only nine countries with AAA ratings from the three major credit agencies.
14 - Japan. The No. 2 "Best Country" of 2021, Japan ranks 15th in government and business transparency and, according to the Reputation Institute, eighth in overall reputation. Japan is admired for its long history and culture; like Canadians, the Japanese people have earned a reputation for being polite and respectful toward others. Japanese Omotenashi—the country's generous approach to receiving guests—has impressed visitors the world over for centuries. That kind of consistency builds affinity and trust.
15 - United States. Once the "shining city upon a hill" that invited the "wretched refuse" of the world to seek the American dream in an atmosphere in which people controlled their own destinies and anything seemed possible, the United States has taken a huge hit to its once unmatched post-World War II reputation as a force for good around the globe. The culprits: rising income inequality, partisan polarization, post-truth politics and a foreign policy that oscillates wildly based on which party is in charge. The United States nosedived notably in international trust during the COVID-19 pandemic, when its response was judged to be among the worst in the world despite the country's great wealth. While still the unchallenged leader of the world's democracies, the United States today barely cracks the top 25 in U.S. News & World Report's ranking of most trusted countries.
16 - United Kingdom. At its zenith, the British Empire stretched over one-quarter of the Earth’s surface and encompassed a third of its population. From parliamentary democracy to soccer to the English language, the U.K.'s influence is felt across the globe every day. That sense of affinity and familiarity—in places from India to The Bahamas—is a big reason why the U.K. has long ranked among the most trusted countries. Unfortunately, Brexit didn't do the country any favors within continental Europe; U.S. News & World Report's data indicates that trust in the U.K. has taken a plunge the past few years (second only to the decline in trust of the United States).
17 - Singapore. Speaking of former British colonies, Singapore was founded as a British trading colony in the 19th century and has emerged as one of Asia's top economies. Though judged a "flawed democracy" by The Economist for its lack of civil liberties and political pluralism, Singapore ranks No. 1 in the Heritage Foundation's Economic Freedom Index and lands as the No. 2 country in Asia and 14th overall in the 2021 Best Countries report. It is also the sixth richest country on the planet per capita, according to the IMF, and boasts a AAA rating from the three major credit agencies.
18 - France. France shockingly dropped from "full democracy" to "flawed democracy" in The Economist's most recent Democracy Index, largely because of the rise in populist nationalism as represented by groups like the National Front and an overall decline of French citizens' faith in their government. However, the country ranks as the 11th best country in 2021 according to U.S. News & World Report, which notes: "It is difficult to overstate the influence France has on the world, both in the past and today. France is one of the world’s oldest countries, and its reach extends around the globe through science, politics, economics and perhaps above all, culture." The global affinity for French culture has bred an enduring sense of trust.
19 - United Arab Emirates. Rated the fifth best country in Asia and first in the Middle East by U.S. News & World Report, the UAE is ruled by an authoritarian government but nonetheless has attracted a huge expat population with residents from more than 200 nations around the globe. Many international companies have set up their Middle East headquarters in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which boast excellent infrastructure and transportation systems. U.S. News & World Report ranks the UAE as No. 1 in its "Movers" category—meaning it has the greatest prospects for future growth.
20 - China. China is a Communist autocracy that "sees human rights as an existential threat" and treats its people accordingly, using its economic clout to silence its critics abroad. And yet, it is now the largest trading partner for more than 120 countries in the world. China is also investing in the infrastructure of more than 140 countries, mostly in the Third World, through its Belt and Road Initiative. And it has avoided launching costly, controversial military campaigns like the Iraq War. For a significant portion of the world population, China is considered a trustworthy economic partner if nothing else. And unlike in the case of a highly polarized democracy like the United States—where the country's policy on global issues like climate change can change dramatically every four years—China has shown far more consistency in its dealings with the rest of the planet.
Scott is founder and CEO of Idea Grove, one of the most forward-looking public relations agencies in the United States. Idea Grove focuses on helping technology companies reach media and buyers, with clients ranging from venture-backed startups to Fortune 100 companies.
(Following is Chapter 3 of Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.)