Washington: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was meeting Thursday with US President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss the Ukraine war and NATO’s future leadership - as well as taking an opportunity to boost Britain’s post-Brexit brand.
While the main thrust of the Oval Office meeting is expected to be on Ukraine and the Western response at a crucial juncture in the war, Sunak is also highlighting UK ambitions to play a major role on artificial intelligence.
It’s a diplomatic drive that has also seen Sunak trying to bolster his personal relationship with Biden - including by reminding the US president of his distant British roots.
While intensely proud of his Irish-American heritage, Biden acknowledges forebearers from England, including a 19th-century sailor, Christopher Biden, who was his great-great-grandfather.
Sunak’s spokesman said that the prime minister would present a copy of Christopher Biden’s book “Naval Discipline: Subordination Contrasted with Insubordination” - which the president, visiting Ireland in April, described as the Royal Navy’s guide to combatting mutiny.
On Ukraine, the US and UK governments are moving closer to offering advanced fighter jets to help Kyiv counter the Russian invasion.
While both governments remain cautious on attributing blame for the catastrophic destruction of a Ukrainian dam this week, they are also clear that Moscow’s aggression must be thwarted.
Ahead of his summit with Biden, Sunak said Britain was coming to help victims of the flooding caused by the dam burst.
“I want people to know that we’re playing our part to support the Ukrainians in their response,” he told UK broadcasters in Washington.
“We’ve provided resources to the United Nations and the Red Cross in advance, anticipating incidents like this, those resources are now being moved into the region to help support those families affected,” Sunak said.
“This is an appalling act and hundreds of thousands of people are being affected by it,” he said, while dismissing Kremlin threats against Britain over its military support to Ukraine.
Sunak also claimed support from Biden for his plans for the UK to host the world’s first summit on artificial intelligence later this year.
“I’m delighted the US is supporting our summit,” he said, insisting Britain was well-placed to play a leadership role to ensure the right “guardrails” are in place to exploit AI safely.
Sunak wants Britain to host a future global regulator for AI, after doomsday warnings of the technology’s potential to wipe out humanity.
Yet there are headwinds for Sunak’s ambitions, with the United States and European Union already engaged in their own dialogue on an AI code of conduct.
But while giving up hope for now on a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States, Sunak headed into the summit arguing that the Ukraine war proves the need for transatlantic economic alignment.
“Just as interoperability between our militaries has given us a battlefield advantage over our adversaries, greater economic interoperability will give us a crucial edge in the decades ahead,” he said.
Sunak is pushing for US relief to UK carmakers, via greater access to critical minerals used in batteries, after Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act offered vast subsidies to companies with US operations.
Sunak has been talking up British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace as a candidate to lead NATO before the Western military alliance holds a summit next month in Lithuania, with the prime ministers of Denmark and Estonia also seen as contenders.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s term in the job is due to end in October.
For now, Biden has given no indication of whom he supports - and his vote will be decisive in an alliance where the United States is by far the biggest player.
On Wednesday evening Sunak took in a baseball game between the Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks, and politely declined the chance to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
After the UK and US anthems were played by a military band, Sunak said to Nats manager Dave Martinez: “They should put a (cricket) bat in my hand.
“That’s more my thing.”