Co-option and Charisma: Soft Power in the International Arena

Power defines the international system, whether through military power or diplomatic charisma. With the fall of the Soviet Union, theorists of international relations began to reconceptualize the notion of power in the vast vacuum which had emerged in the now unipolar world with the United States as the main superpower. How do states exert their influence over others and manipulate outcomes in their own favor? In this quest, several theoretical frameworks of how power is utilized by state and non-state actors within the international system began to emerge. One of them is Joseph Nye's conception of soft power, which defines the uncertain post-Soviet period of world politics.

Figure 1: Note: an image of Joseph Nye, theorist behind soft power. Hoover Institution. Retrieved 2022, from

To first define the concept of power itself, Nye describes the phenomenon as the manner in which one influences the behavior of others in order to induce a favorable outcome and achieve one's goals (Nye, 1990). There are various methods in which the state can exert its power, such as the use of coercion, threats, and financial incentives to induce others into compliance.

Contrasted with military power, or the ability to "do things and control others... to get others to do what they otherwise would not", soft power is defined primarily by its non-coercive properties of shaping preferences of others through co-option and attraction (Nye, 1990). Whereas military or hard power is easier to quantify, such as a defined number of missiles or troops, Nye argues that the United States should rely on its non-coercive soft power to cement its place as the world's sole superpower in an uncertain post-Soviet atmosphere (Li, 2018).

But what components exactly constitute soft power? How does the power of ideas shape the world stage? Soft power can therefore be separated into three distinct categories of influence which have the potential to shape other states' preferences, including: 1. Culture: an international appeal for a state's cultural inventions, whether be it pop culture of blue jeans and album records or "higher" forms of culture found in traditional arts.

2. Ideology: a like-minded agreement found in political and social values such as free market economics, human rights, and liberal democracy.

3. Foreign policy: maintaining legitimacy and authority in the international sphere, specifically within institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union (Nye, 1990).

Hence, these three categories help to reinforce the concept that soft power is an ideational concept at its core, with the very power of ideas and values shaping how states operate within the system. The notion of legitimacy and authority is therefore vital to the state's reputation, for it allows other countries within the international community to enact similar policies or vote on an international resolution in the same manner as the state. The following metaphor of "follow the leader" is elaborated in the following section to further illustrate the importance of international authority.

Figure 2: Bejar, D. (2021). Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 2022, from

The metaphorical game "follow the leader" is perhaps useful for illustrating this concept: "A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries - admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness - want to follow it" (Nye, 2004). Contemporary examples of transnational agreements include European democracies voting similarly to that of the United States, a phenomenon where democracies tend to enact similar policies or vote on similar resolutions. By acting as a prosperous and liberal state, other countries are soon induced in following similar policies in order to achieve that same level of development according to the theory of soft power. In this way, a superpower such as the United States may rely on its charisma and cultural predominance to persuade other countries to follow certain policies to produce beneficial outcomes for that superpower.

The most well-known example of a state utilizing its soft power within the system in order to influence certain outcomes is that of the post-WWII United States (Nye, 2010). Within the context of the Cold War, American cultural phenomena widely influenced global cultures such as the advent of rock 'n roll music, film and television, and fashion movements. The popularization of American media and trends, along with the English language becoming increasingly ubiquitous, has allowed for the soft power of the United States to slowly diffuse over the world stage.

It is enlightening to conceptualize how the world works within Joseph Nye's framework of soft power. Rather than military might and quantitative methods, the power of ideas affects how states interact and cooperate with one another is paramount to the understanding of soft power. Therefore, soft power can be boiled down to the simple idea of co-opting other states into shaping their own preferences to match your own. This can be done through various methods, but the most central tenets of one's own culture, political values, and reputation in the world stage are the most important to appeasing others. A case study of the United States is useful for understanding soft power in action, due to the country's decades of propagating cultural inventions to a global audience. Entering an increasingly globalized and connected world, the interplay of culture, values, and foreign policy is an enlightening manner in which to think about how countries interact and influence one another.

Bibliographical references

Li, E. (2018, August 20). The rise and fall of Soft Power. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from

Nye, J. S. (1990). Soft Power. Foreign Policy, 80, 153–171.

Nye, J. S. (1990). The Changing Nature of World Power. Political Science Quarterly, 105(2), 177–192.

Nye, J. S. (2004). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Public Affairs.

Nye, J. S. (2010). Soft Power and US Foreign Policy. Routledge. Image references

Figure 1: Hoover Institution. Retrieved 2022, from

Figure 2: Bejar, D. (2021). Foreign affairs. Retrieved 2022, from

Author Photo

Dana Kit

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