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LONDON — What do a British king have in common with the son of a car salesman from Scranton, Pennsylvania? Quite a lot, it turns out.
When US President Joe Biden arrives at Windsor Castle on Monday, he will renew an acquaintance with King Charles III that goes back decades.
Biden decided to stop by Britain on his way to this week’s NATO summit in Lithuania to meet a first bilateral reception with Charles since he took the throne, along with talks with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Downing Street. The president missed the king’s coronation in May, where the United States was represented by First Lady Jill Biden, and chose not to visit Britain during his trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland in April.
Biden and Charles come from very different backgrounds but belong to a similar generation – the King is six years younger than Biden – and share a strong commitment to tackling climate change, as well as a deep love of Ireland and culture Irish.
Less welcome may be a shared concern for wayward children, a topic perhaps best avoided over tea at the castle.
« They know each other well, they’ll be relaxed with each other, » said Peter Ricketts, a former senior British diplomat who ran the UK’s Foreign Office from 2006 to 2010. « They know how to play the diplomatic game… without naming any previous US president. I think it will be a very friendly, warm and well thought out discussion. »
Biden, a proud Irish-American, has long made it clear in private that he’s not the biggest fan of the British monarchy. But, he told allies, he respected Queen Elizabeth II’s leadership and found common ground with Charles on the need to urgently combat climate change.
Environmental issues will form the backbone of the two men’s meeting in Windsor on Monday. Biden and Charles to receive a joint briefing from UK Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Grant Shapps and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry on a transatlantic trip to ‘accelerate the deployment of literally trillions of dollars’ of investment for climate change, Kerry told the BBC on Sunday.
Both heads of state have shape on environmental issues. King Charles championed the green cause long before it was considered mainstream and has consistently used his influence to champion the environment. Biden has sought to reassert the United States’ role in reducing carbon emissions, rejoining the Paris Agreement to take office and passing the Inflation Reduction Act, his historic $500 billion injection into clean energy and green industries.
The pair have previously joined forces in green campaigns, with TV cameras capturing Biden telling the then prince at the COP26 climate summit that « we desperately need you » in the global drive to cut emissions.
Both leaders have also previously emphasized the importance of engaging business leaders on the topic, as evidenced by the King’s Sustainable Markets Initiative. As head of the Commonwealth, Charles is particularly interested in climate-vulnerable states.
Sense of calm
Beyond environmental issues, the Windsor Summit is designed to radiate a sense of newfound calm and cooperation between two old allies after a turbulent few years in both British and American politics, and ahead of the potential upheaval of general elections in both countries next year.
“[Charles] he has quite a rich background when it comes to the United States,” added a former royal aide, speaking anonymously so they could be upfront about their former employer. “He has met every president since Nixon. He has memories very, very sharp when he was in the White House with his sister [Princess Anne] when Nixon was president, and his experience will absolutely influence the kinds of conversations he wants to have.
Another well-established link between the two heads of state is their dedication to their respective countries’ relationship with Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is also likely to be on the agenda.
A former Irish diplomat said the King « has very clearly retained his mother’s legacy, in terms of having a very positive influence on improving relations », and agreed that Charles and Biden « have in common their shared interest and very constructive for Ireland ».
They added that this had been underlined by Charles’ engagement with Irish leaders around the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s death and again at the coronation, and in Biden’s case with his visits to Belfast and Dublin to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. A visit to Ireland is heavily on Charles’ calendar next year.
While the tone of interactions between the UK government and its closest neighbors had « heated up » with the signing of the Windsor Framework Agreement in February, said the former diplomat himself, both men are likely to be unsettled by the continued absence of a government executive in Belfast.
At least as important as what the two men actually say will be the perspective of the visit.
Simon Fraser, as Ricketts, former head of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, noted: ‘I think what you’re really looking for is atmosphere, ceremony and expression at the highest level possible of the relationship ».
This has added significance in the context of this week’s NATO summit, according to Ricketts.
« Britain is the US’s closest ally in NATO, so it’s a very natural opportunity for them to talk a little bit about it in carefully apolitical and impartial terms, » he said.
Fraser agreed, expecting the pair to talk about Ukraine, while a serving British diplomat remarked: « They’re both commanders-in-chief and heads of state, and the King takes a very, very close interest in everything related to defense – related. »
Their closely related strategic interests are underpinned by a sense of shared perspective as two leaders who have been prominent on the world stage for 40 years or more. Charles, at 74, is more than 30 years older than Sunak, who became Britain’s youngest prime minister in more than two centuries when he took office last year.
“They’ve seen a lot of changes,” said the former Irish diplomat quoted above. “There is a lot of experience and wisdom to draw on. Both have seen a lot in their political life, particularly when you compare them to the people in government in London.
Jonathan Lemire was reporting from Washington, D.C. Annabelle Dickson and Charlie Cooper also reported from London.