Ukraine, Security Dominate British Prime Minister Sunak’s First White House Visit

June 8, 2023

President Biden on Thursday welcomed British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to the White House for wide-ranging talks. 

“Today in Washington, we’ve had important, positive discussions that deepen our bilateral economic relationship and expand our cooperation to shape the challenges for the remainder of this century,” Biden said during the two leaders’ joint press conference in the East Room. “It’s a testament to the depth, breadth and I would argue the intensity of our cooperation and coordination.”

In Sunak’s first-ever White House visit, the two leaders’ discussions in the Oval Office were expected to include the war in Ukraine, China, economic security, and international cooperation on regulating the growing field of artificial intelligence.

“There’s no issue of global importance—none—where our nations are not leading together and where we’re not sharing our common values to make things better,” said Biden on Thursday, announcing a new economic partnership plan that would include accelerating a transition to clean energy, developing new technologies and protecting technologies that would be critical to the two nations’ future—like semiconductors, quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

Biden added that the potential for AI to create “fundamental technological change” is “staggering.” 

“Standing here together as our predecessors have done for generations, I feel confident that through the strength of our relationship we can shape the world once again in our pursuit of liberty, prosperity, and the possibilities of a new age,” Sunak said at Thursday’s press conference. “and that begins with our highest priority—national security.”

He added that “economic security” must be prioritized along with military security, noting that this week alone, £14 billion ($17.6 billion) in new American investment has been committed into the UK, creating thousands of jobs. He also stressed strengthening supply chains and reducing trade barriers on future technologies. 

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be “top of mind.”

The United States and the United Kingdom are the two biggest donors to the invaded nation’s war efforts, with Britain playing a central role in efforts to sent American-made F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine and train its pilots on them.

Answering a reporter’s question Wednesday, Biden said he believed Congress would provide the long-term funding Ukraine will need even after the war with Russia ends. “We are advancing this goal by providing them with the support Ukraine needs now on the battlefield and helping them strengthen their military over the long term,” he noted.

Sunak added, “The UK is proud to be behind the U.S., the biggest contributor the military efforts in Ukraine, and I think it’s right that other countries also step up and do their part. We are lucky to have America’s investment in European security, but we need to share the burden alongside you, which is why defense spending in the UK has been above the 2% NATO benchmark. It’s on an increasing trajectory and we would encourage other countries to follow the lead that the U.S and the UK set.”

During a surprise visit to the UK by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in mid-May, Sunak called their two nations “United in action.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin “will be thinking that he can wait us out, that the alliance will tire, that will get fatigued and will give up. And that is not the case,” said Sunak on Thursday. “And the more we can put in place in support for Ukraine—not just in the here and now, but support that will last for a time and for years to come—I think it sends a strong signal to him that there is no point to try to wait us out. We are not going anywhere.” 

He added that hopefully that signal will “speed up the calculation” in Putin’s mind that he should withdraw his forces and stop with his “illegal and unprovoked act of aggression.”

While in Washington Sunak is also expected to make the case for Biden to support UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace as successor to outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, with whom Biden is scheduled to meet on Monday ahead of next month’s NATO summit in Lithuania. 

Wallace is not the only one in the running, however. For example, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, whom Biden hosted at the White House on Tuesday is widely viewed as a potential contender to replace Stoltenberg at NATO.

When a British reporter asked Biden at the press conference if it was time for a British NATO Secretary General, Biden responded, “Maybe. That remains to be seen.”

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