In his 1st White House visit, Rishi Sunak talks Ukraine, AI — and how to say his name
LONDON — When Rishi Sunak became the United Kingdom's prime minister last fall, it was right around the Indian holiday of Diwali — and Sunak is the first U.K. prime minister of Indian descent. So President Biden gave him a shout-out at the White House Diwali party.
But he botched the pronunciation of Sunak's name. So did his press secretary. By January, he still couldn't get it right. (It's pronounced RIH-shee — rhymes with "dishy" — SOO-nak. Some U.K. media even nicknamed him "Dishy Rishi.")
That left some in London with the impression the Biden administration hadn't learned who the British prime minister was — or didn't care.
When Biden traveled to Sunak's region in April, for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, it was an opportunity for a reset. But he spent four days in Ireland and less than a full day on the U.K. side — barely enough time to grab a cup of coffee with Sunak. (The press dubbed their bilateral meeting a "bi-latte.")
Biden later told a fundraiser in New York that he only went to the commemoration to ensure "the Brits didn't screw around."
So as Sunak heads to the White House Thursday, he's looking to reset what's long been called a "special relationship" between Britain and the United States. He wants to prove that after Brexit, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and political turmoil in London, Britain remains one of the most important U.S. allies.
"There has been an unusual level of political turbulence. Sunak will want to get the impression across that stability has been restored," says Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to Washington. "As for Britain's place in the world, we're the second-biggest contributor in terms of military assistance to Ukraine. We are the second-largest contributor to NATO. So there's no question we can still bring something to the table."
Critics say Sunak's goals are small
Ukraine is expected to dominate Thursday's White House talks. The topic is even more urgent in light of the destruction of a dam in southern Ukraine this week, and amid speculation about the start of the Ukrainian military's long-awaited counteroffensive.
Sunak may lobby Biden to back his U.K. defense secretary, Ben Wallace, to become the next secretary-general of NATO. The current one, Jens Stoltenberg, is expected to step down in September.
Any hopes of a major post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S. have been abandoned though, with Sunak instead saying he is focused on "specific and targeted" ways to improve trade between the two countries. These reportedly may include a carve-out to protect the U.K. car industry from Biden's green subsidies, or some offer on digital services.
But some say this would be only a minor win.
"Compared to the ambition of a few years ago, it feels a bit small," says Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of Europe at the Eurasia Group, a risk analysis think tank.
Britain wants to lead on AI
Sunak may have more luck getting Biden to back some of his plans related to artificial intelligence. In a bid to position the U.K. as a leader on AI, Sunak's government announced late Wednesday that London would host a global AI summit this fall to discuss ways of monitoring the technology's risks.
Asked by reporters on the plane to Washington whether his plans for the U.K.'s role in AI diplomacy were realistic, Sunak insisted that "this midsized country happens to be a global leader" in the technology.
But the European Union is also a leader on AI, and U.S. officials have already signed agreements on the topic with their EU counterparts. Since Britain has left the EU, analysts say the U.K. may struggle to keep up.
"There's something of a scramble now by Sunak to try to forge an influential and important role in this very quickly maturing AI debate," Rahman says. "I think it's going to be very hard."
So Sunak will be looking for any wins from this White House visit: a photo op with Biden, exuding stability, continued collaboration on Ukraine — and hopefully, a U.S. administration that's learned how to pronounce his name.
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A previous wire photo caption mistakenly said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would meet President Bush instead of President Biden. Another caption previously said Sunak would be throwing the first pitch at a Washington Nationals baseball game, but he opted not to do so.