Survey respondents say new leadership is needed around the world as the U.S. drops in the Best Countries rankings.
From his perch in Hong Kong, Zhang Baohui worries how leaders in China, the United States and Russia will – or won't – work with each other this year. If the three largest powers can find common ground on basic issues such as trade and fighting terrorism, global security will not be upset, says the director of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies at Lingnan University.
"But you never know," he quickly adds. "If issues such as trade or the South China Sea develop, if these countries see each other as rivals, conflict could break out. That is my greatest fear."
In Berlin, Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations says his greatest concern focuses on whether Washington will remain a world leader in trying to slow the effects of climate change. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been a "great player" internationally, he says, and the American leadership role cannot be easily replaced.
"This is a crucial turning point," Riecke says of the world's efforts against global warming.
As 2017 unfolds, anticipation and anxiety over unknowns are major themes across large swaths of the world. Fighting continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, and despite a push for peace talks, in Syria, as well. The mass number of refugees that spilled into Europe, coupled with a string of deadly terrorist attacks, has fueled an anti-immigrant sentiment and emboldened populist politicians across the continent, expressed in part by the British vote to leave the European Union. And the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president is on the minds of many people around the world.
The tumult of 2016 can be seen clearly in the results of this year's Best Countries rankings.
Switzerland is viewed as the No. 1 overall country, according to a survey of more than 21,000 people from 36 countries in all regions of the world. People regard the European country highly for its citizenship, being open for business, an environment that encourages entrepreneurship, the quality of life it provides its citizens and for its cultural influence.
Switzerland is one of 20 new countries evaluated this year, as the total number of nations assessed in the survey grew to 80.
Canada finished No. 2 overall and the United Kingdom No. 3, as both did last year. Germany fell from its top spot in 2016 to No. 4 this year, while Japan moved up two positions to No. 5 overall.
The United States fell as many positions as Germany in the rankings, dropping to No. 7 overall, behind Sweden. The U.S. is still seen as the world's most powerful country, but the gap between it and second-place Russia, which American intelligence officials say interfered with the presidential election in an effort to help Trump, has narrowed to a near-negligible difference in that area.
The global survey went out beginning one week after last November's U.S. presidential election, and the tone of a historically polarizing campaign may have affected the world's view of America. For example:
Other key results from the survey reflect anxiety across the planet beyond the U.S. presidential election results:
The Best Countries survey results wouldn't surprise people such as political scientist Ian Bremmer, founder and president of Eurasia Group, a global risk analysis firm. Speaking last month before George Washington University students, Bremmer said the election of Trump underscores his assertion that the world is in a "geopolitical recession," a period of increased instability characterized by a lack of global leadership.
Trump's foreign policy mantra of "America First," Bremmer says, ends an era in in which globalization and Americanization were tightly connected. As a result, he says political risk around the world is at its most volatile level in decades. Russian hacking efforts will continue in Europe as Moscow tries to interfere in other Western democracies' politics, Bremmer says.
China, meanwhile, sees an opportunity to expand its diplomatic influence in Asia and its economic influence globally. Zhang, of Lingnan University, says Chinese leaders have used the Mandarin phrase "yin ling" (引领), which translates into English as "guide and lead" or "show the way," to present their intentions of taking a more assertive economic role around the world, particularly after Trump's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. Chinese leaders, who have raised their citizens' standards of living through trade, see globalization as a benefit, as opposed to the anxiety in Western countries, Zhang says.
"Whether China can lead (globally) is another issue. They aren't there yet."
Leaders such as Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop argue that globalization itself isn't the problem. Instead, she and others agree with survey respondents who say better efforts are needed to tackle income inequality. Bishop and other leaders say shutting out the world is not the answer to tackling inequality.
Elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany this year, however, will test whether people want to live in societies open to the world or closed, says Dan Hamilton, the director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations. Those elections will follow last year's Brexit vote and underscore an EU sinking further into its deepest crisis since its founding.
"There is a lot of pressure from populists, but whether that will translate into a change in governments is unknown," says Hamilton, who also is the Austrian Marshall Plan professor at the Transatlantic Center.
At his February talk, Bremmer said German Chancellor Angela Merkel will likely win re-election in the fall, but her image as a strong leader of Europe will diminish. A former scientist who grew up in communist East Germany, Merkel has been a steadfast believer of a liberal, democratic world order led by a globally engaged America that stood against the former Soviet Union. Trump's election victory has in some ways rejected that view, Bremmer says.
"She is in many ways a tragic figure"
Riecke, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, says the U.S. military defense commitment to Europe remains a source of concern among countries across the continent. Those anxieties are heightened by the presence of Russia, which seized the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has occupied the region since. Due partly to worries over Russia, militarily neutral Sweden announced in early March that it would return mandatory military service beginning next year.
Riecke agrees with Trump's view that NATO member countries should spend more for joint defense. Calling Trump's position a "wake-up call" for NATO countries, Riecke says the military alliance's role in the fight against the Islamic State still needs to be defined and agreed upon between Washington and Europe.
"There might be more difficult negotiations on that"
Other countries are already filling voids the U.S. has abandoned. In January, when Trump said the U.S government would no longer subsidize international birth control, abortion and family planning education for women in developing countries, the Dutch government stepped in, announcing it would create an international fund and seek out other countries and organizations as partners.
Meanwhile, Switzerland, the world's oldest neutral country, appears to offer a respite from a liberal Western-led political order upended by populist sentiments and strongman politics. The small Alpine country has preserved its place on the world stage by presenting itself as a sanctuary for calm reason.
The Swiss quietly voted in February to streamline citizenship for third-generation immigrants. At a time when Trump speaks of border walls, the Swiss rejected the anti-immigrant sentiment that has stoked anger and propelled populist politics in the U.S. and across Europe.