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

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