U.S. News unveils 2016 best countries rankings

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What makes a country the best? Is it leadership? Military might? Economic strength? A rich and deep vein of culture and history? Freedom, a stable government and transparency when it comes to business and the political process?

In a word, yes. All of the above contribute to how people perceive what makes one country better than another -- and ultimately which one ranks as the best overall.

U.S. News & World Report, in collaboration with BAV Consulting and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, sought to answer the question of what makes a best country to produce the Best Countries rankings. The survey sampled the perceptions of more than 16,000 people in four global regions. They were asked to associate 60 countries with specific attributes. An overall score was assigned to countries, based on how they were scored in the attributes. The countries were chosen on measures that included the United Nations' Human Development Index, gross domestic product, tourism and total exports. In all, the 60 countries in the rankings represent about three-fourths of the world's population and about 90 percent of global GDP.

Click through to see all 25 countries ranked:

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U.S. News unveils 2016 best countries rankings

Explore the Best 25 Countries

These countries, which range from Austria to Sweden, performed the best overall in the 2016 Best Countries rankings.

The rankings, formed in partnership with marketing firm BAV Consulting and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania​, aim to gauge global perceptions of the world’s biggest economies. Click through to see what country is No. 1 and discover where the U.S. falls in the pack.

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No. 25: Israel

Israel, home to some of the world's holiest sites, ranks No. 25 overall. The country ranks No. 8 in Power and No. 24 in Citizenship. Israel is a parliamentary democracy made up of six districts. The country claims Jerusalem as its capital, though it hasn’t received wide international recognition.

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No. 24: Russia

Russia, the world’s largest country by land mass, ranks No. 24 overall. The nation ranks No. 2 in Power, behind the United States, and No. 20 in Entrepreneurship. Russia has one of the world’s largest economies that is powered by its extensive natural resources.

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No. 23: Portugal

Portugal, the westernmost nation of continental Europe, ranks No. 23 overall. The country ranks No. 9 in Heritage and No. 25 in Cultural Influence. The country’s gross domestic product per capita is one of the lowest among wealthy nations, and unemployment rates are high in this heavily service-based economy.

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No. 22: India

India, the world's largest democracy, ranks No. 22 overall. The country is No. 1 in Movers and No. 6 in Heritage. India is known for its historical architectural treasures, including the Taj Mahal, Humayun's tomb, the Sun Temple at Konarak and other vast temple complexes.

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No. 21: Thailand

Thailand, the only Southeast Asian nation untouched by European colonization, ranks No. 21 overall. The country is No. 4 in Adventure and No. 10 in Open for Business. A substantial agriculture sector and competitive manufacturing industry have kept Thailand strong and growing with low poverty and unemployment rates.

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No. 20: Brazil

Brazil, one of the world's top tourist destinations, ranks No. 20 overall. The country is No. 1 in Adventure and No. 7 in Cultural Influence. Brazil’s economy grew rapidly during the first decade of the 21st century, and it now has one of the world’s largest economies in terms of gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund.

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No. 19: South Korea

South Korea, which has a high-tech, service-based economy, ranks No. 19 overall. The country ranks No. 10 in Power and No. 12 in Entrepreneurship. It has one of the world’s largest gross national savings and reserves of foreign investment, reminiscent of a dictatorship that placed heavy emphasis on saving instead of spending.

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No. 18: Ireland

Ireland, nicknamed the Emerald Isle for its well-watered grasslands, ranks No. 18 overall. The country ranks No. 13 in Adventure and No. 11 in Open for Business. The country comprises five-sixths of the island of Ireland -- the remaining sixth is Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom.

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No. 17: China

China, the world's most populous nation, ranks No. 17 overall. The country ranks No. 3 in Power and No. 3 in Movers. Home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, China has been ruled by the Communist Party since 1949, when the nation was established as the People’s Republic of China.

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No. 16: Spain

Spain, which has 17 autonomous regions, ranks No. 16 overall. The country is No. 2 in Heritage and No. 3 in Adventure. Spain is a parliamentary democracy, with a popularly elected legislature led by a prime minister and a monarch as chief of state.

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No. 15: Singapore

Singapore, home to one of the world's busiest ports, ranks No. 15 overall. The nation is No. 2 in Movers and No. 8 in Open for Business. Gross domestic product per capita is high and unemployment is low, making Singapore one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

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No. 14: Luxembourg

Luxembourg, the second-wealthiest country after Qatar, ranks No. 14 overall. The nation ranks No. 1 in Open for Business and No. 10 in Quality of Life. Luxembourg is a major center for large private banking, and its finance sector is the biggest contributor to its economy.

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No. 13: Italy

Italy, which has the third-largest economy in the Eurozone, ranks No. 13 overall. The country ranks No. 1 in Heritage and No. 2 in Cultural Influence. The country's historical cities, world-renowned cuisine and geographic beauty make it a popular destination for more than 40 million tourists each year.

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No. 12: Austria

Austria, which boasts one of the highest standards of living among the economies of the world, ranks No. 12 overall. The country ranks No. 9 in Quality of Life and No. 9 in Citizenship. The nation’s top economic sectors are services, industry and agriculture.

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No. 11: New Zealand

New Zealand, which gained independence from Britain in 1907, ranks No. 11 overall. The country ranks No. 5 in Adventure and No. 6 in Open for Business. Today, 70 percent of Kiwis, a common term for the people of New Zealand after a native flightless bird, are of European descent.

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No. 10: Denmark

Denmark, a constitutional monarchy, ranks No. 10 overall. The country ranks No. 3 in Citizenship and No. 3 in Quality of Life. Denmark has several leading industries including food processing, tourism and the production of iron, steel and machinery.

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No. 9: Netherlands

The Netherlands, one of the world's leading exporters of agriculture, ranks No. 9 overall. The country ranks No. 4 in Citizenship and No. 5 in Quality of Life. In 2001, the country became the first to legalize same-sex marriage, and national stances on drugs, prostitution, euthanasia and abortion are liberal.

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No. 8: France

France, one of the world’s oldest countries, ranks No. 8 overall. The country ranks No. 1 in Cultural Influence and No. 4 in Heritage. The French economy is one of the world's largest and is a mixture of private enterprise and government involvement.

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No. 7: Japan

Japan, a country of roughly 126 million people, ranks No. 7 overall. The country ranks No. 5 in Movers and No. 6 in Cultural Influence. Japan is known worldwide for its traditional arts, including tea ceremonies, calligraphy and flower arranging.

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No. 6: Australia

Australia, a wealthy nation with a market-based economy, ranks No. 6 overall. The country ranks No. 5 in Citizenship and No. 4 in Quality of Life. The nation has a high rate of participation in sporting activities and boasts a comparatively high life expectancy for both females and males.

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No. 5: Sweden

Sweden, a capitalistic country with a large percent of spending going toward public service, ranks No. 5 overall. The country is No. 1 in Citizenship and No. 2 in Quality of Life. Health care, as well as a college education, are free, and its people boast one of the longest life expectancies in the world.

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No. 4: United States

The United States, the world's largest economy, ranks No. 4 overall. The country ranks No. 1 in Power and No. 3 in Cultural Influence. The country’s most significant exports are computers and electrical machinery, vehicles, chemical products, food, live animals and military equipment.

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No. 3: United Kingdom

The United Kingdom, a former great colonial power, ranks No. 3 overall. The country ranks No. 5 in Cultural Influence and No. 5 in Power. The U.K. is a highly developed nation that exerts considerable economic, political, scientific and cultural influence internationally.

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No. 2: Canada

Canada, the second-largest country in the world after Russia, ranks No. 2 overall. The country ranks No. 1 in Quality of Life and No. 2 in Citizenship. Technically, Canada is a constitutional monarchy with the U.K. monarch as the head of state.

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No. 1: Germany

Germany, the most populous nation in the European Union, ranks No. 1 overall. The country is No. 1 in Entrepreneurship and No. 4 in Power. Germany employs a social market economy -- open-market capitalism that also carries certain social service guarantees.

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Learn More About Best Countries

Don't see your country here? See the full list of the 2016 Best Countries and explore how nations did in areas like Power, Citizenship and Quality of Life.

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The responses were divided into eight broad topics and a further category called Movers, a research-based metric from BAV that is predictive of a country's future GDP growth. The topics include Adventure, Citizenship, Entrepreneurship, Heritage, Influence, Movers, Open for business, Power and Quality of life.

The survey asked people their views on what the best country is on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the most forward-looking country, to the best country to be a woman, start a career, raise children and many other topics.

And the results? Germany is viewed as the overall "best country." The home to Europe's largest economy is seen as the top country for encouraging entrepreneurship, and is highly regarded for providing global leadership and caring for its citizens. Its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom both the Financial Times and Time magazine named as their Person of the Year for 2015, has actively led her government to confront some of the world's most pressing challenges, such as the Greek debt crisis and the waves of immigrants sweeping across Europe.

Germany rose from the ashes of World War II to become Europe's foremost power and a world leader in many areas, not least of which is its economic prowess founded on its network of small and medium businesses known as "Mittlestand." The country is seen as a model for the way in which it trains workers in apprenticeships following secondary school education.

The United States, the world's greatest military power and largest economy, ranks fourth, trailing not only Germany but Canada and the United Kingdom, as well. Canada, which recently elected a new liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is rated highly on quality of life issues and transparency, while the U.K. is seen as an influential country that is the best nation to obtain an education.

"In terms of equality, we very much believe in it," says Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador to the U.S. "Some countries have difficulty putting equal rights into their constitution – Canada had it in their charter of rights from the beginning. We continue to believe in inspiration through equality of rights. It's an inspirational part of our culture."

A common thread among the leading countries is a strong role for the government in the everyday lives of the citizenry. Strong social safety nets – including the provision of low-cost college education and health care in countries like Germany, Sweden and Austria – are allied with a joint role for business and government in economic policy. This stands in stark contrast to the United States, where political debates often rage about the role of government in the economy, and soaring university student loan debt is seen as a major national issue threatening future prosperity.

"There really does seem to be some skepticism about some things that we (Americans) think we may do better than other people do, education being a prime one," says Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer at U.S. News and World Report. "Canada and the United Kingdom do better than the U.S. in education. People don't feel as comfortable about U.S. education as perhaps we've been led to believe."

Rounding out the top 10 are Sweden, Australia, Japan, France, the Netherlands and Denmark. Japan, a country known for its technological prowess, is rated highly for its entrepreneurship, while Sweden is rated first in citizenship, a progressive ranking that factors in education and the climate for women and the LGBT community.

Algeria, a North African country facing multiple challenges ranging from international criticism of its record on civil liberties to tackling terrorism and high unemployment, finished at the bottom of the rankings. Other countries that finished at the bottom of the Best Countries rankings include Ukraine, Iran, Nigeria and Pakistan. All of the low-ranking countries face common challenges of corruption, conflict and a poor quality of life for their citizens. Many are struggling with insurgent movements and terrorism within their borders.

Survey respondents see Asia as a key for the future. The top five-ranked countries in the Movers subranking – India, Singapore, China, Thailand and Japan – come from the region. Singapore also is seen as the most forward-looking country, with Japan and South Korea also rated high.

"India, which is the (world's) largest democracy, has emerged as a global leader," Dnyaneshwar Mulay, consul general of India in New York City, says in an interview with BAV. "India encourages pluralism, inclusiveness and equal opportunity to all its citizens. It has strong soft power of long heritage, diverse forms of arts and culture and strong values such as respect for all and non-violence. "

The rankings show that the idea of power is changing around the world, says John Gerzema, chairman and CEO at BAV Consulting. "We live in a social, open and interdependent world. And in this world what we saw that people valued more were things like global citizenship, quality of life and innovation that was creating inclusive prosperity for more people."

The survey provides not only a snapshot of what makes a particular country good or bad, but also offers a road map to governments and other institutions on how they might adopt policies that would win them more favorable perceptions, says David Reibstein, professor of marketing at the Wharton School.

"They have ministers of foreign trade and they have ministers of tourism and spend a lot of time trying to attract commerce," Reibstein says. "And that attraction is going to come through people's perceptions of whether or not you're a good place to do business. And therefore it's really important for government leaders and for businesses within those countries to really focus on these perceptions."

In some cases, the results hue to long-held opinions about certain countries. France and Italy score highly, for example, on cultural heritage, be it the tremendous works of art and literature in France or the world-famous cuisine of Italy. In other cases, there are surprises. Luxembourg is viewed as the best country to conduct business, while the Southeast Asian nations of Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines are seen as the best countries to start a business. Egypt, a country plagued by violence and poverty, is seen as a country with promise, ranking high in the "Movers" topic.

"I think countries end up having sort of personas," says Dennis Ross, in an interview with BAV. Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a veteran White House adviser on Middle East policy, cites Germany as a country with a reputation of having institutions that perform well. "There's an image internationally that Germany functions and functions well. There is a kind of history – certainly since the Second World War – of Germany transforming itself and becoming a country that basically works."

At a time of global movement, shrinking borders and international business that connects economies, countries can no longer exist alone, separate from their neighbors and natural competitors.

"Government leaders should be paying attention to these rankings," says Reibstein. "This is how they're perceived in the world and it affects their economies from within."

More from U.S. News & World Report:
U.S. News Ranks Germany No. 1
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