Rishi Sunak has waited too long to greet the U.S. president at 10 Downing Street to let differences in their respective strategies on Ukraine overshadow Monday’s meeting. Joe Biden made a stopover in London before attending the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. It was a gesture of friendship with a British Prime Minister whom he respects—in contrast to his manifest rejection of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his successor, Liz Truss—and with a country, the United Kingdom, to which Biden’s Irish ancestry has sometimes made him seem elusive. “Our relationship is rock solid,” Biden said publicly upon his arrival at Sunak’s residence.
Photographers captured the image of the two leaders, hand in hand, sitting in the gardens of the complex that houses the British prime minister’s home and office. The main topic of the conversation was Ukraine, but Sunak’s purpose was always to offer an image of coordination between Washington and London, as well as to minimize the discrepancies between the two countries on two thorny issues. The United States has offered Kiev cluster bombs to alleviate its ammunition shortage amid Russian aggression. The United Kingdom—as a signatory (along with over a hundred other countries) to the convention banning such weapons—will not follow its ally’s lead. But it has also avoided publicly criticizing that move. “It was a difficult decision for the United States,” the Prime Minister’s spokesman explained, “and it was Russian aggression that forced [that choice] to be made.”
There are also disagreements about the speed with which Ukraine should begin the process of joining NATO, a central issue at the Vilnius summit. In the hours leading up to the meeting between Biden and Sunak, messages from Downing Street implied that the United Kingdom—and Eastern European countries—wanted Kiev to join the Alliance quickly, as opposed to Washington’s more cautious stance. That difference was also qualified on Monday; a Sunak spokesman called reports pointing to differences between the allies inaccurate. “Of course, we want to support Ukraine on its path to joining the Alliance. But it should be up to NATO partners to discuss the concrete mechanisms for achieving that goal,” he said.
The “special relationship” between London and Washington, which British governments have always courted, is well worth a conciliatory exercise. Downing Street was particularly eager to highlight Biden and Sunak’s commitment to moving forward on the so-called “Atlantic declaration,” which the two leaders launched when the British prime minister visited the U.S. capital in early June. The declaration envisions increased bilateral cooperation in areas ranging from energy transition to the defense industry. The accord is nothing like the free trade agreement that Conservative Eurosceptics—starting with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson—had dreamed of accomplishing with Brexit, but it does grant the U.K. a number of bilateral agreements on items like critical minerals and energy supply security that Washington had already agreed to with the European Union.
Biden and the King
Marine One, the U.S. commander in chief’s official helicopter, flew Biden to Windsor Castle, where King Charles III was waiting for him. The Welsh Guards awaited the dignitary on the parade grounds. After inspecting the troops, both heads of state listened to the military band’s rendition of the American national anthem. “You have all been able to see the personal warmth that exists between the two,” a Buckingham Palace spokesman told the press. Biden’s absence from the British monarch’s coronation in May had prompted certain sectors of the British conservative press to highlight the president’s alleged snubs of the United Kingdom. In reality, however, the Democratic leader and Charles III are on the same page about the central issue of combatting climate change. That could already be seen at COP-26 in Glasgow two years ago, when Charles III was still heir to the throne.
The two held a private meeting, including tea, about which neither of their respective teams provided any details. Biden and Charles III then met with a group of philanthropists and representatives from financial institutions to discuss possible solutions for paying for an energy transition in the poorest countries. The mini-summit, dubbed the Climate Finance Mobilization Forum, was designed to highlight Biden’s respect for Charles III’s decades-long commitment to environmentalism. The meeting was also attended by U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry and British Secretary of State for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero Grant Shapps.
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