Press play to listen to this article
Voiced by artificial intelligence.
WASHINGTON — Rishi Sunak, not a tall manit looked dwarfed against the backdrop of the vast Washington Nationals stadium, largely empty Wednesday night under a blanket of heavy smog.
The British prime minister’s enthusiasm didn’t fade 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 fan, unlike his US counterpart, Joe Biden, who played regularly for the Philadelphia Phillies 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 each other’s interests, despite their glaring differences.
It’s not just cricket versus baseball; nor just conservatives versus Democrats. Sunak is 43 years old; Biden is over 80 years old. Sunak attended one of the most expensive public schools in England and is married to a billionaire heiress; Biden flaunts his blue-collar credentials — not to mention his Irish heritage — whenever he gets the chance.
But across profound differences in age, class, and political tradition, Sunak has worked hard to maximize his relationship with Biden in the seven short months he’s been in office.
Those efforts appeared to pay off at the height of this week’s trip to Washington — Sunak’s first as UK prime minister — when Biden spoke glowing terms 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, speaking of Ben Wallace’s long-term candidacy when incumbent Jens Stoltenberg finally retires. And crucially for the British prime minister’s all-important domestic audience, Biden said the special report was « really in good shape. »
Yet Sunak’s visit to Washington has not been without its points of tension as he looks over his shoulder, aware that all his efforts may soon be dashed. These leaders will face parallel electoral tests next year and for Sunak in particular, victory looks like a stretch.
The art of the deal
For both men, successful diplomacy with a close ally plays well at home. Before the trip, Sunak wanted to publicize the two leaders’ close cooperation on Ukraine, as well as the prospect of US support for Britain’s ambition to lead the way in navigating AI risks.
« There’s a lot they can do together, » said Karin von Hippel, director of the RUSI think tank and a former State Department agent. « Americans have been grateful in many ways that the British have looked forward to Ukraine, because it helps Americans make the case at home. »
At the same time, von Hippel said, the growing need to regulate AI fits perfectly with the two men’s common goal of responding to China’s growing influence.
After testing these common areas ahead of the trip, Sunak had an additional rabbit to pull out of his hat in the form of an « Atlantic Declaration, » signed by both leaders on Thursday. While ultimately just an agreement to hold more talks, the UK government will use the statement to demonstrate progress in gaining access to critical minerals and to distract from Britain’s broader failure to negotiate a US-UK trade deal long promised.
His dramatic presentation at the White House was a typical Sunak move, said a senior British official involved in the deal, which he drew a comparison with the swift unveiling of the Windsor framework agreement in February after months of negotiations with the ‘European Union. « He just deals with business, » the official smiled.
For all the warm words and joint statements in Washington this week, the four-decade age gap between leaders was inevitable. Biden was barely audible as she spoke softly from his chair in the Oval Office. Beside him, a beaming Sunak exuded an excitable energy.
Yet both men saw opportunities to use the wide generation gap to their advantage.
During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden played heavily on his foreign policy experience, bragging about the number of world leaders he already knew on a personal level. But within the current G7 leadership, Biden is still building relationships with several new heads of state, some of whom represent America’s most critical allies.
Sunak, prominent among them, may not seem like the most natural partner for the Democratic president to turn to. But according to those around Biden, the two have meshed well.
Biden’s publicist Karine Jean-Pierre noted how often he and Sunak have met: Thursday’s meeting is the fifth since Sunak came to power last October and the fourth in the past four months . At Thursday’s press conference Sunak noted that their wives had been spending so much time in each other’s company that they started taking spin classes together.
Privately, Biden’s aides say they appreciated Sunak’s eagerness to lean on the report and his desire to limit engagements to just the two leaders where possible in an effort to get to know the president better.
That has gone down well with Biden, aides say, noting that the president prefers to keep meetings casual and allow personal conversations to flow. Many of their one-on-ones lasted longer than expected, a sure sign that the president enjoyed the conversation and believes the two-sided relationship — and Sunak himself — are worth its time. Thursday’s meeting lasted a total of 80 minutes, half with assistants present and half without.
Officials from both sides insist the age difference has not proved an impediment. If anything, Sunak’s deference to Biden’s experience on the international stage endeared him to the octogenarian president, several US officials say.
With Sunak, as with other mid-1940s international counterparts such as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen – both have also met with Biden in recent weeks – the president sees an opportunity to convey the perspective of a leader who has lived through decades of geopolitical convulsions.
« He sees these meetings with Sunak and some other younger leaders as an opportunity to talk about the future of the world he sees, in hopes they see things the same way, » said a senior administration official who requested anonymity. to describe the president’s private conversations.
A Downing Street aide echoed those thoughts. “They respect each other’s differences,” the aide said. « Biden wants someone to carry on the mantle defending their shared values, and Rishi obviously respects Biden’s foreign policy experience. » Sunak told colleagues he was particularly impressed by Biden’s extensive experience dealing with China.
We’re not kidding
It helps that Sunak is on a stronger footing domestically than her hapless predecessor, Liz Truss, which means Biden feels the time invested in the relationship won’t go to waste.
White House aides contrast Sunak’s professionalism and temperament favorably with the clownish character of his predecessor, but one, Boris Johnson. Biden didn’t appreciate Johnson’s jokes about G7 leaders taking off their shirts at a summit in Germany last year, according to two people close to the president.
This steadfastness doesn’t always count in Sunak’s favor, of course. The trip to Washington was tightly controlled to a fault, with no unscripted moments to grab UK front-page headlines, in stark contrast to Johnson’s often colorful international adventures and even those of David Cameron before him.
“It’s both [Sunak’s] strength and its weakness, » said a second aide No. 10, insisting that the prime minister hopes instead to quietly make the case for competent government.
Sunak, at least, feels at home in the United States, which isn’t surprising given his extensive American connections, including a waterfront property in California. Addressing business leaders on Thursday, the prime minister referred to his time at Stanford University, recalling how he « saw the entrepreneurial spirit firsthand ».
First Adjutant No. 10 quoted above said that Sunak « is excited to be here ». Another British diplomat noted that Sunak was comfortable with the American way of doing things, from cultural references to food. They suggested the prime minister would welcome the chance to pick up some peppermint bark, an American candy that famed and sweet tooth Sunak lists as one of his guilty pleasures.
Biden loves sugary snacks too, with chocolate chip ice cream a personal favorite. Whether it’s politics or candy, the two men will seek common ground wherever they can find it.
The clock is ticking. With both leaders facing tough elections next year – and both still being tortured by their blond-haired predecessors who refuse to leave the scene – this newfound friendship could very well be borrowed.