Through most of the 20th century, the United States enjoyed preponderant economic and military power and a nearly universal respect for American culture and institutions -- the foundations of soft power.
Oil has bestowed substantial wealth and influence on Saudi Arabia and several other Middle Eastern countries. Although they will never challenge U.S. military power, U.S. frustrations teach money affords more immediate leverage than high-minded American exhortations, and soft power more lasting influence than aircraft carriers and battalions.
In Egypt, the United States must choose between supporting a military-backed oligarchy or recently deposed supporters of President Mohamad Morsi, who, given the chance, would establish an even worse Islamic Republic.
U.S. efforts to promote a genuinely inclusive democracy are frustrated by the fact U.S. aid is neutralized by what Saudi Arabia and other autocratic states offer Cairo.
More subtly, U.S. culture and institutions, as projected by the media and a foundering economy, are simply less attractive in Egypt where even middle-class advocates of Western-style political freedoms are much more conservative in their personal conduct and tolerance, and more concerned with bottom-line economic progress, than the typical American reading The New York Times.
The United States must afford diplomatic recognition to the regime that emerges but it need not subsidize it. If $1.5 billion in U.S. aid doesn't bring the U.S. State Department the influence enjoyed by non-democratic actors, then U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is right: It's time to cut off Egypt, and let it stew further in the juices of intolerance and corruption.
Although the $1.5 billion is enshrined by the Middle East peace accord, this shouldn't give the Egyptian military carte blanche to overthrow an elected government, jail opponents and effectively bar conservative Islamists from the political process. The aid the regime receives from Saudi Arabia and others, which permits it to thumb its nose at U.S. concerns, would more than compensates for the lost U.S. largess.
In Egypt, more repression and economic difficulties would still follow but then American ideas about giving everyone a place at the table and transparency won't seem so quaint to the siloed middle-class Egyptian mind.
Arab embrace of genuinely Western liberal values can never be bought with cash or inspired by American exhortations but only emerge from the hard lessons taught by imprudent embrace of "more efficient" alternatives -- ask Europeans about fascism.
Patience and consistent messaging should be the bywords of American policy and the same goes in most other places where U.S. security isn't directly challenged.
Soon, China will have a larger economy and spend more in real terms on defense than the United States. Although less sophisticated technologically, it will catch up and pose challenges in the Pacific the United States, acting alone, will lack the resources to confront.
Chinese efforts to build a modern navy and claims that challenge Japanese territorial integrity and security have instigated an intense debate within Japan about rearming.
The United States and other allies should no longer expect Japan to accept limits on the justifiable assertion of sovereign power as payment for the World War II sins of deceased malefactors. Focusing on its security concerns in the Pacific, Japan has more than enough economic and technological assets to give China pause to reconsider aggression.
The United States can continue to enjoy great influence as Britain did for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, if it cultivates regional balances of power, lets regional tensions play out, and devotes its energies to rebuilding the genuine sources of American power -- the U.S. economy and quality of democracy at home.
It isn't as though the United States doesn't have substantial assets or the power of ideas and history on its side but, unlike the early post-World War II decades, it doesn't enjoy the preponderance of assets needed to go everywhere and settle every dispute.
(Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland School, and a widely published columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @pmorici1)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)