WASHINGTON - The bailout of Cyprus - if it can be called that - bore all the trappings of Europe's standard response to its economic crisis.
The last-minute, melodramatic rescue was complex, contentious and controversial. Decisions were taken that, for now, prevent Cyprus' problems from spilling over to the 16 other countries that use the euro.
But the same steps may make matters worse in the long run. No one who reads Neil Irwin's splendid new book, "The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire," will be surprised.
Most accounts of the crisis have treated it mainly as an American affair. Irwin departs from convention by recognizing it as a global event and focusing equally on Europe's turmoil.
The title refers to the medieval chemists and con men who tried to convert everyday materials into gold and silver. Irwin's modern alchemists lead the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the Bank of England.
But he could also have called his book "The Improvisers," for improvisation is how they've reacted to today's turbulence. (Disclosure: Irwin, a Washington Post columnist, is a colleague.)
At every stage, their solutions have been makeshift, hasty and sometimes desperate. Policies often fix immediate problems but threaten to cause - or seem to threaten - larger future problems.
The constant goal, as Irwin shows, has been to prevent a collapse of the global financial system, which could plunge the world economy into a genuine depression. Everyone embraces the goal, but the responses have often been expedient and inconsistent.
Certainly, this verdict applies to Cyprus.
The threat was that it would be forced to abandon the euro and that its exit would trigger contagion. Bank depositors elsewhere - Italy and Spain being obvious candidates - would withdraw their euros to prevent them from being converted into cheaper national currencies.
So Cyprus became significant well beyond its tiny size. It symbolized the willingness of other eurozone countries to defend the currency.
Unless Cyprus' loss-ridden banks were recapitalized, they would have had to close. Without credit, businesses wouldn't have been able to pay their bills. Lacking the 10 billion euro ($13 billion) rescue, the government would have defaulted on its debts.