Press play to listen to this article
Expressed by artificial intelligence.
WASHINGTON — Rishi Sunak, not a tall man, looked tiny against the backdrop of the vast Washington Nationals stadium, largely empty Wednesday night under blankets of heavy smog.
The British Prime Minister’s enthusiasm was not dampened as he smiled and waved at fans in his shiny baseball jacket, determined to make the most of a brief moment in the American spotlight.
In truth, Sunak is more of a cricket fan than a baseball guy – unlike his American counterpart, Joe Biden, a regular at Philadelphia Phillies games when he was vice-president.
When they met this week in the US capital, the British Prime Minister and the US President tried to make the most of their mutual interests, despite glaring differences.
It’s not just cricket versus baseball; nor even just Conservative versus Democrat. Sunak is 43 years old; Biden is over 80. Sunak attended one of England’s most expensive state schools and is married to a billionaire heiress. Biden plays up his blue-collar credentials — not to mention his Irish heritage — every chance he gets.
But across gaping divides of age, class and political tradition, Sunak has worked hard to maximize his relationship with Biden in the short seven months he has been in office.
Those efforts appeared to bear fruit at the climax of this week’s trip to Washington — Sunak’s first as British prime minister — when Biden spoke glowingly about his counterpart’s ability to lead.
Sunak was also pleased with Biden’s playful nod to the prospect of a British NATO secretary general, talking about Ben Wallace’s long-term candidacy when incumbent Jens Stoltenberg finally retires. And especially for the UK prime minister’s all-important domestic audience, Biden said the special relationship was “in really good shape.”
Still, Sunak’s visit to Washington has not been without tension points as he looks over his shoulder, aware that all his efforts could soon be swept away. Those leaders will face parallel electoral tests next year and for Sunak, in particular, the victory seems like a stretch.
The art of dealing
For both men, successful diplomacy with a close ally plays well at home. Ahead of the trip, Sunak was keen to announce the two leaders’ close cooperation on Ukraine, as well as the prospect of US support for Britain’s ambition to lead the way in AI risk navigation.
“They can do a lot together,” said Karin von Hippel, director of the RUSI think tank and former State Department agent. “The Americans were grateful in many ways that the British leaned forward on Ukraine because it helps the Americans make their case at home.”
At the same time, von Hippel said, the growing need to regulate AI fits perfectly with the two men’s shared goal of responding to China’s growing influence.
After rehearsing those common spaces before the trip, Sunak had another rabbit out of his hat in the form of the “Atlantic Declaration,” signed by the two leaders on Thursday. Although ultimately just a deal to hold more talks, the UK government will use the statement to demonstrate progress in access to critical minerals – and to distract from failure further. off Britain to broker a long-promised US-UK trade deal.
Its dramatic White House unveiling was a typical Sunak move, said a senior UK official involved in the deal, who drew a comparison to the Windsor Framework Agreement’s rapid reveal in February after months of negotiation with the European Union. “It’s all about business,” the official smiled.
For all the warm words and joint statements in Washington this week, the four-decade age gap between the leaders was inevitable. Biden was barely audible as he spoke quietly from his chair in the Oval Office. Beside him, a beaming Sunak exuded an excitable energy.
Still, both men spotted opportunities to turn the vast generation gap to their advantage.
During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden played heavily on his foreign policy background, bragging about how many world leaders he already knew on a personal level. But within the current G7 leadership, Biden continues to build relationships with several new heads of state, some representing America’s most critical allies.
Sunak, prominent among them, might not seem like the most natural partner for the Democratic president to turn to. But according to those around Biden, the pair hit it off.
Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, noted how often he and Sunak have met – Thursday’s meeting being their fifth since Sunak took office last October, and their fourth in the past of the last four months. During Thursday’s press conference, Sunak observed that their wives had spent so much time in each other’s company that they had started taking spinning classes together.
Privately, Biden aides say he appreciated Sunak’s willingness to hone in on the relationship and his desire to limit engagements to just the two leaders whenever possible, in an effort to get to know the president better.
It went well with Biden, aides say, noting that the president prefers to keep meetings informal and allow personal conversations to happen. Several of their one-on-ones lasted longer than expected, a sure sign that the president enjoyed the conversation and believes the bilateral relationship — and Sunak himself — is worthy of his time. Thursday’s meeting lasted a total of 80 minutes, half with assistants present and half without.
Officials on both sides insist that the age gap has not proved an obstacle. On the contrary, Sunak’s deference to Biden’s experience on the international stage has endeared him to the octogenarian president, according to several US officials.
With Sunak, as with other international counterparts in their 40s such as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen – both of whom have also met with Biden in recent weeks – the President sees an opportunity to give the point of view. view of a leader who has gone through decades of geopolitical convulsions.
“He sees these meetings with Sunak and other young leaders as an opportunity to talk about the future of the world he sees, in the hope that they see things the same way,” a senior official said. of the administration who requested anonymity to describe the private life of the president. conversations.
A Downing Street aide echoed those thoughts. “They respect each other’s differences,” the aide said. “Biden wants someone to continue to stand up for his shared values, and Rishi of course respects Biden’s experience in foreign policy.” Sunak told his colleagues he was particularly impressed with Biden’s extensive track record in dealing with China.
I am not joking
It helps that Sunak is on stronger footing domestically than his ill-fated predecessor, Liz Truss, which means Biden feels the time invested in the relationship isn’t going to be wasted.
White House aides also contrast Sunak’s professionalism and temperament favorably with the clownish personality of his predecessor, Boris Johnson. Biden didn’t appreciate Johnson’s sarcasm about G7 leaders taking off their shirts at the summit in Germany last year, according to two people close to the president.
That stability doesn’t always count in Sunak’s favor, of course. The trip to Washington was tightly controlled, with no unplanned headline moments in the UK – in stark contrast to Johnson’s often colorful international adventures, and even those of David Cameron before him.
” That is both [Sunak’s] strength and its weakness,” said a second No 10 aide, insisting the prime minister instead hopes to quietly plead for a capable government.
Sunak, at least, feels at home in the United States – which is not surprising given his many American connections, which include a beachfront property in California. Speaking to business leaders on Thursday, the Prime Minister was keen to reference his time at Stanford University, recalling how he “saw the entrepreneurial spirit firsthand”.
First Assistant No. 10 quoted above said Sunak was “getting a buzz to be here”. Another British diplomat noted that Sunak was comfortable with the American way – from cultural references to food. They suggested the prime minister would welcome the chance to pick up some peppermint bark – an American candy that the famous Sunak cites as one of his guilty pleasures.
Biden also loves sweet snacks, with chocolate chip ice cream being a personal favorite. Whether it’s politics or candy, the pair will seek common ground wherever they can find it.
The clock is turning. With the two leaders facing tough elections next year – and both still tortured by blond-haired predecessors who refuse to step down – this newfound friendship may well be on hold.