Mearsheimer’s response was The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), in which he subjected several of the liberal pieties of the previous decade to closer inspection. In the wake of the ‘no-fault’ aerial operations of the Persian Gulf War, and the unveiling of the B-2 ‘stealth’ bomber, US military planners believed that they could determine outcomes on the ground with minimal US casualties. The age of air power had been proclaimed many times before – by Giulio Douhet, Carl Schmitt, Arthur Harris, Norman Schwarzkopf – but Mearsheimer insisted that conventional armies would still form the basis of most conflicts in the 21st century. The ‘stopping power of water,’ as he called it, limited the capacity of a state to project power on another landmass for any great period of time. Insular landmasses protected by water boundaries – the US, Britain, Japan – would always be easier to defend than Germany and Russia. It’s possible that Mearsheimer had internalised the unique geographical conditions of US power, a country-continent flanked by two oceans, as the ideal situation of a great power. Even so, he believed that America’s global ambitions were logistically impossible to realise.
He also dismantled the neoconservative assumption that the way to preserve American hegemony was to create a world of liberal democracies, each with its allotted place. He argued that democratic peace theory, which holds that two democracies can’t go to war with one another, was empirically mistaken. In the First World War, a nominally representative democracy (Great Britain) had gone to war against another nominally representative democracy (Wilhelmine Germany). The decade he was examining offered the example of the Kargil War between India and Pakistan – two democracies that had been poised to destroy each other since Partition. There was no guarantee that a world of liberal democracies would be a world of peace. And, as he pointed out, ‘democracies are somewhat more likely than non-democracies to target civilians.’
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