The last week has highlighted the enormous cultural differences between the US and the UK. After the UK parliament voted against military action in Syria in retaliation for President Assad’s alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, delivered an impassioned speech about why the US must go it alone and attack Syria to teach them a lesson.
Whereas the US felt the need to act with urgency, the UK and other European states – including Germany – decided to take the cautious approach. The majority of UK parliamentarians were uncomfortable rushing in with an air strike without proof of who used the weapons, as well as without knowing who the rebels in Syria really are and if it is in the UK’s, or even Syria’s, best interests to support them.
This is a very different stance from the one taken in 2003, when the UK rushed to the US’s side to support military intervention in Iraq. However, the rush to dispose of Saddam Hussein, without thinking of the future consequences, has caused huge problems – including much loss of life among UK soldiers and retaliatory terrorist attacks at home, as well as leaving Iraq with fractured political and social systems and not much of an economy.
Who knows who will turn out to have the moral high ground? If the US does launch air strikes into Syria, will history look favourably on them as they protect a people under attack from a dictator? Will it treat the UK and other parts of Europe harshly for ignoring the plight of the Syrians when we could have done something to stop the aggressor?
If you look at these two political decisions in the abstract, they give you a broader view of the differences between the US and elsewhere. The need to act with urgency, to make things better today, or even yesterday, is often the chief aim of US policy, with the consequences considered at a later date, if at all. It’s a bit like a coffee addiction – wake up, get that coffee fix, quick. You don’t really need that coffee, but you feel like you do to function; then you find you need one at 11:00, 15:00 and into the evening. Soon you can’t exist without coffee being on hand throughout the day. While this delays the withdrawal symptoms and that inevitable coffee headache, it’s not a very healthy way to live.
That’s not to say that the UK, Germany, etc., doesn’t like coffee – they do – but perhaps they haven’t become as addicted as the US, or they use smaller cups.
The analogy isn’t only relevant to foreign policy decisions; it also translates well to economics and monetary policy decisions. Take the contrast between the Federal Reserve in the US and the European Central Bank. Since the financial crisis in the US in 2008 there has been Tarp (the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Programme), quantitative easing, operation twist and then QE-without end launched in 2012.
TARP basically took over $450bn of bad assets from banks’ balance sheets, while QE has expanded the Fed’s balance sheet to a whopping $3.6 trillion. In contrast, the Bank of England’s QE programme, at £375bn, looks like a mere drop in the ocean. The ECB didn’t embark on QE, even though it had a debilitating sovereign debt crisis. Japan has recently embarked on a huge stimulus programme, the equivalent of $2 trillion, however it is balancing that with tighter fiscal policy and economic reforms.
The policy stances between the US and Europe are at either end of the policy scale, with the US acting in an ultra-accommodative fashion, while the euro zone, led by Germany, is on the uber-hawkish side. The UK and Japan are somewhere in between, albeit slightly closer in spirit to Germany.
Obviously this is a very simple way to break down political and cultural divisions, but in this basic form the US tends to rush into things all guns blazing, while the euro zone takes a more cautious, considered approach. There are pros and cons to both stances. The US approach can be considered too brash, while the euro zone approach can be infuriating with its delays and emphasis on caution.
From a global perspective though, I think it is a huge benefit that the US and Europe, the world’s two most important powers, have opposing stances on most things economic and geopolitical. Hopefully that means that the US can pull us all out of a hole when the going gets tough, while Europe can help smooth the road ahead and tame the US’s wilder instincts when the situation urges caution. This is important for all of us, and hopefully can act as a global form of checks and balances.