In advance of US President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to India this month, a panoply of Republican, conservative and neoconservative strategists in Washington urged him to use his trip to persuade New Delhi to join the United States in a political-military alliance. India, they argued, could serve as the lynchpin of efforts to cement the United States’ role as a superpower in Asia and the Indian Ocean—an anchor in an American scheme to surround and contain a China.
It’s a tempting proposition for a superpower. Over the decades, the United States has gotten used to viewing other nations as pawns and minor pieces on a sweeping chessboard, and for many conservative analysts India was seen not as a great nation in its own right, but as a bulwark against Beijing—just as in an earlier era, Beijing was viewed as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.
For the most part, and to his credit, Obama declined to reduce India to the status of a chess piece. Though he called India ‘the defining partner of the 21st century,’ throughout his visit Obama kept the focus on trade, economics and jobs. ‘During my first visit to India, I’ll be joined by hundreds of American business leaders and their Indian counterparts to announce concrete progress toward our export goal—billions of dollars in contracts that will support tens of thousands of American jobs,’ Obama declared.
But back home, the president’s emphasis on economics disappointed the armchair strategists of the American right. Ever since the inauguration of the US-India strategic dialogue earlier this year, right-wing think tanks in Washington had salivated over the concept of an alliance between the two great nations against China. Ignoring India’s longstanding commitment to a nonaligned stance and neuralgic opposition to entangling alliances, and papering over the very real and significant differences between US and Indian interests, analysts at the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation—the leading bastions of neoconservative thought in Washington—envisioned a kind of super-NATO linking the United States and India.
The neoconservatives, who have few channels into the Obama administration, must have been nostalgic for the days of the George W. Bush administration. Back in 2005, Tom Donnelly, a neoconservative military expert at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote that ‘successfully wooing India is key to preserving the liberal, American-led international order.’