Hard Power, Soft Power, and Energy Power

The New Foreign Policy Tool

Used oil barrels at a storage facility in Seattle, Washington, February 12, 2015. Jason Redmond / Courtesy Reuters

The debate over whether U.S. interests abroad are better served by hard power—coercive means such as military force—or soft power—less aggressive means of persuasion, such as diplomacy, economic aid, and propaganda—is perennial. Since becoming president, Barack Obama has emphasized soft power, suggesting that an over-reliance on military force has alienated many of the United States’ friends and allies without achieving much in return. But many Republicans, and even some Democrats, accuse him of overcorrecting and, in turn, inviting bad behavior from the likes of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. For all their finger-pointing, both parties have, in reality, come to embrace an intermediary approach—what can best be called “energy power.”

Energy power is the exploitation of a nation’s advantages in energy output and technology to promote its global interests and undermine those of its rivals. This could mean, for example, providing energy to friends and allies that have become heavily dependent on supplies provided by a hostile power, as in U.S. efforts to wean Europe off its reliance on Russian natural gas. It can also mean deploying an oil rig in disputed waters as a means of asserting control, as in China’s drilling operations in the South China Sea. Energy power can be used to bolster ties with a geostrategic partner, as in the nuclear agreement forged between the United States and India, or to punish a recalcitrant neighbor, as in Russia’s repeated shut-off of natural gas supplies to Ukraine. Although not as harsh as hard power, energy power can entail policies that rise above the level of soft power.

Energy power has, of course, long been a feature of international statecraft. As Japan extended its prewar empire in Asia, for example, the United States, which was then Japan’s leading supplier of oil, imposed increasingly severe sanctions on energy exports to that country in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to deter further Japanese aggression. In 1973–74, the Arab

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