Rishi Sunak seeks fresh start with Washington ahead of meeting with Joe Biden

Prime Minister looks to strengthen ties with President Biden while demonstrating powerful unity over Ukraine

Rishi Sunak shares a joke with Joe Biden at the G7 summit in Hiroshima last month. They will meet again in Washington on Wednesday. Photo: No 10 Downing Street
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When Rishi Sunak beams at the cameras with US President Joe Biden at his side on Thursday, the subliminal message from the White House will be that the countries have more that unites than divides.

There will likely be new announcements of support for Kyiv’s war effort, potentially including the deployment of US ATACMS long-range missiles, coinciding with Ukraine's apparent launch of its counter-offensive

In the spotlight will be the recent realignment of British and American affairs, which have been damaged by Brexit, Donald Trump and the Conservative Party’s political insolvency.

Rishi Sunak will stand to benefit most from the glow of American power during his visit.

When Mr Sunak attends the Washington Nationals baseball game on Wednesday, he will hope it’s another step in delivering the message that Britain is now guided by a straight pitcher, albeit one whose first sport is cricket.

“The Biden administration was unenthusiastic about the previous two prime ministers but might be more impressed by Rishi Sunak's government,” said Dr Dana Allin, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Coffee mates?

The strength of the US-UK relationship underpins the western alliance, but it has been affected of late by Britain’s diminished post-Brexit global standing, the chicanery of Boris Johnson’s leadership and Liz Truss’s brief tenure.

The idea will be to put the “Brexit spats behind them”, said Dr Allin, senior fellow for the US.

“There’s been a lot of bad blood between the Biden administration and Boris Johnson – and the Liz Truss interlude was somewhat befuddling to Washington.”

Mr Sunak's two-day trip is also a chance to bury the dissonance over Northern Ireland’s Brexit position and criticism following President Joe Biden’s brief coffee with Mr Sunak during his week-long trip to the island of Ireland in April.

The pair have already met four times in as many months, but are yet to develop the personal spark of the Thatcher-Reagan or Blair-Bush eras. Relations have not been helped by Mr Biden calling Mr Sunak “Rashid Sanook” after he became Prime Minister in October.

“There has been gloominess because there’s no personal chemistry between Sunak and Biden and we tend to think about the ‘special relationship’ through the lens of individual leaders,” said Dr Leslie Vinjamuri, of the Chatham House think tank.

But the “short shrift” of the Belfast coffee will now be replaced by “a proper visit. with the baseball game and a couple of significant days and that will play well”, she added.

Ukraine could be the winners

Washington was reportedly concerned by Britain’s policy on Ukraine, sending long-range cruise missiles, heavily backing the F-16 fighter lobby and justifying the incursions into Russia’s Belgorod region.

Prof Michael Clarke, a leading military analyst, suggested the Americans “politically think that we’re a bit too gung-ho in supporting Ukraine, have been too far out in front and that's making them a little bit nervous”.

However, Dr Vinjamuri, also a lecturer in American studies at SOAS University of London, said there had been “more co-ordination than the headlines might suggest”.

It was also “useful for Washington to have Britain taking a very important leadership role” as it played “very well, from a domestic point of view, to be able to say that Europeans and Britain, in particular, are leading the charge”.

Water surges through a gap allegedly blown up by Russia in the Kakhovka dam in Kherson region, southern Ukraine. EPA

The British stance helped Mr Biden take the argument to Congress that the US needed to be tougher on Russia and support Ukraine, in direct contrast to the stance of Donald Trump’s administration.

Dr Allin argued the White House appreciated Britain’s “forward-leaning and leadership” on Ukraine, which “somewhat compensates for the view of diminishment post-Brexit”.

He warned Washington was wary of Ukraine using US equipment to strike inside Russia and did not “discount the possibility of nuclear escalation like others do”.

Ethnic bounce

As the UK’s first non-white, Hindu and ethnic Indian leader, Rishi Sunak will be warmly received in multicultural America.

“Washington will be impressed by his ethnic diversity, it will play well,” said Dr Vinjamuri.

“Especially at a time when Britain has looked very parochial but has a leader who looks global rather than classically English, that sends a good signal which will be very well received.”

Dr Allin agreed the diversity connection representing “the very multicultural face of Britain” would be “a huge theme in America that they will find attractive”.

“Also, this is someone with an Indian and entrepreneurial background and for certain segments of the United States will be appealing,” he added.

British Defence Secretary, left, shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron at 79th anniversary of the World War II 'D-Day' Normandy landings. EPA

Nato Wallace?

Once inside the Oval Office, Mr Sunak will likely make a subtle pitch for his Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, to win Mr Biden’s support to become the next Nato Secretary General.

The vacancy will open next month, with several other European politicians eyeing the influential post.

But Mr Wallace’s tough and proactive stance on Ukraine means he is a strong contender,

Analysts believe Mr Sunak would do well to steer clear of mentioning a US free-trade agreement in the talks, but may well discuss a critical minerals pact, as well as addressing the artificial intelligence threat.

Powerful symbolism

Ultimately the symbolism of the two western leaders standing side-by-side as the Ukraine offensive gathers pace will be the most potent moment.

“It sends a political message, both to Russia and the global south, that the West really means this in Ukraine, that this is not a one-off,” said Prof Clarke.

“Hammering the message of a clear political consensus among the G7, that tells the people around Putin that their president is not taking them anywhere, as long as he is pursuing this ridiculous policy in Ukraine.”

Standing together in Washington would “demonstrate solidarity”, said Dr Vinjamuri, and comes “at the right moment as a counter-offensive looks imminent, which makes it really symbolically important”.

Updated: June 08, 2023, 7:39 AM