The phrase belonged to Otto von Bismarck, the First Chancellor to Wilhelm 1 of Prussia. Bismarck played the game of Machiavellian politics to the nth degree, his aggressive history revealing the uber-reapolitik politician as a contradictory character. Ruthless and conservative with an innate disdain for democracy, he also established the beginning of the world’s first welfare state, seeing practical pragmatic reasons to bolster economic growth by giving workers security.
Although the man who believed in ‘blood and iron’ rather than speeches and majority decisions would find nothing unfamiliar with the face-off over intervention in a bloody civil war, he would probably be perplexed by the principled facades of Putin and John Kerry, trumpeting their arguments as if motivated by the dead children pulled from the dusty rubble of bombed Syrian districts or the bloody cul-de-sacs of military marshlands like Iraq or Afghanistan and not by the Cold War by any other name that they have continued to wage from the familiar entrenchments of East and West.
There is a refreshing honesty to Bismarck’s approach in retrospect, however appalling some of the ideas he espoused about the rule of the Junkers or landed aristocracy over the puppet elected officials of Government. His first principle was ‘does it meet the aims of the Empire?’ If not, then he was against it and would use military might or oppose its use equally passionately without feeling the need to paint the action as a ‘mission to fight tyranny’ or ‘defend the victims of oppression.’ For him, it was a pragmatic, amoral action motivated entirely by the self -interest first of the Prussian Empire and then of the nascent German state. In 1888 he spoke against the possibility of a European war over Bulgaria in tones that seem all too familiar, opposing ‘a war whose issue no man can foresee. At the end of the conflict we should scarcely know why we had fought.’
Realpolitik, both the word and the principle, was conceived in an age before public relations. Nowadays the blood and iron, even in the face of blank opposition from your own population, must be coated in the sheen of principle, however implausible or hypocritical. The seasoned diplomat clings to their hypocrisy as the only thing that distinguishes us from animals. To them, it shows our capacity for the artful avoidance of morality, even if we have the capacity for it and revels in the sophistry.
Putin is against the US taking action outside of the UN because he loses his veto and therefore his share of the game. Obama and Kerry dress up ignoring the UN option and literally soldiering on as a necessity, despite widespread opposition by those stung by the Iraqi morass, by grandstanding in particular on the specific red line of sarin gas.
Undeniably cruel and inhumane, chemical warfare and its definition under the Chemical Weapons Convention has also been slanted in the direction of post-WWII politics. The few most noted breaches of the convention are the gassing of the Kurds by Saddam at Halabja, the release of sarin gas in Japan by the Aum Shinrikyo cult and the most recent example in Syria.
This seems counter-intuitive if you think of chemical warfare in the round. Really? Only a few examples of such breaches since the Convention emerged? Does that seem possible or probable? What about Agent Orange in Vietnam? The white phosphorus that was used by the US in Iraq and the Israelis in the Occupied Territories? Plenty of charred children there to rail against and yet Schedule 1 of the Chemical Weapons Convention specifies ‘chemicals that have few or no uses outside of chemical weapons.’ It doesn’t say you can’t have them. You can legitimately test chemical weapons or use them for unspecified medical research. If you aren’t permitted to use them, why test them? What are you testing them for? Moisturiser?
Schedule 2 specifies chemicals that have ‘legitimate small-scale applications’ which must be declared but are only subject to restrictions to those countries that are not signatories. Take note all those nations who wish to use mustard type gases. Sign up to the CWC and you can get away with no restrictions on substances also used to fill up your average ink cartridge.
Schedule 3 is a doozy and may explain why there have been so few technical breaches of the CWC. This covers chemicals that ‘have large-scale uses apart from chemical weapons.’ In other words, the possessions of white phosphorus or defoliants like Napalm are all permitted to be stockpiled in quantities up to 30 tons by any signatory nation. Hence the lack of any real sanctions against their use in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq or Gaza.
But even here, the self-interest is merely the sub-text of a diversionary debate about the contents of each nation’s chemistry set. As usual it will be easy to find Syria’s chemical weapons inventory by simply locating the receipts in the defence departments of those apparently willing to intervene. The trade in chemical weapons by the US and UK in particular but also by Russia, has not been impeded by the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is obvious that victims of a bombing campaign die of conventional weapons in far greater numbers than they do from chemical weapons. But the convention, cobbled together in the spirit of preserving the chemical option by every signatory nation who turned up to the first meeting, is just the latest tool in a political game that sees the old Cold War divisions cloaked in a semblance of principle.
No one denies the tragedy and injustice of non-combatants, particularly children becoming, along with truth, the first casualties of war. But there is the familiar stench of realpolitik about the Chemical Weapons Convention’s role in the present debate over Syria and it reeks of blood and iron.