WASHINGTON: The United States and Britain on Thursday announced a new strategic pact as their leaders rededicated the “special relationship” to counter Russia, China and economic instability.
In a White House summit, US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak discussed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the lightning-fast evolution of artificial intelligence.
But Sunak came away empty-handed on Britain’s ambitions for a post-Brexit free-trade agreement with Washington, settling instead to tack along with Biden’s plan to craft a new green economy through vast industrial subsidies.
An “Atlantic Declaration” adopted by the leaders aims to boost industry ties on defence and renewable energy, in the face of growing competition from China.
“We face new challenges to international stability — from authoritarian states such as Russia and the People’s Republic of China; disruptive technologies; non-state actors; and transnational challenges like climate change,” the declaration read.
As he welcomed Sunak to the Oval Office, Biden was asked by reporters if the “special” transatlantic relationship was in good shape. He gave a thumbs-up and replied: “In real good shape.”
Both leaders concurred that the world economy was undergoing the biggest changes since the Industrial Revolution, in part driven by AI, which is bringing doomsday warnings that sentient machines could wipe out humanity unless governments coordinate a response.
Sunak said Biden backed his plan to convene “likeminded” countries for the world’s first AI summit in Britain later this year — and the prime minister also wants the UK to host a future AI regulator.
Yet there are headwinds for Sunak’s ambitions, with the United States and European Union already engaged in their own dialogue on an AI code of conduct as industry figures plead for regulation.
“One thing I’m confident won’t change is the strength of our partnership, our friendship, and we will put our values front and center, as we’ve always done, to deliver for the British and American people,” he told Biden.
Sunak said the Atlantic Declaration would help the allies face up to the chronic instability in energy markets caused by Russia’s actions — although they are reluctant yet to blame Moscow for this week’s calamitous destruction of a dam in Ukraine.
But Sunak’s first White House summit was equally about re-forging personal relationships after Britain went through three prime ministers last year, and after Biden made clear his displeasure about its handling of Northern Ireland.
On Ukraine, the US and UK governments are moving closer to offering advanced fighter jets to help Kyiv counter the Russian invasion.
Sunak said the dam breach was an “appalling act and hundreds of thousands of people are being affected by it”, promising UK aid relief to the victims.
But while giving up hope for now on a trade deal with the United States, Sunak headed into the summit arguing that the Ukraine war proves the need for transatlantic economic alignment.
“Just as interoperability between our militaries has given us a battlefield advantage over our adversaries, greater economic interoperability will give us a crucial edge in the decades ahead,” he said.
Sunak did win a promise from Biden to discuss US relief to UK carmakers, via greater access to critical minerals used in batteries, after the president’s Inflation Reduction Act offered new subsidies to companies with US operations.
Sunak has meanwhile been talking up British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace as a candidate to lead Nato before the Western military alliance holds a summit next month in Lithuania, with the prime ministers of Denmark and Estonia also seen as contenders.
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s term in the job is due to end in October.
For now, Biden has given no indication of whom he supports — and his vote will be decisive in an alliance where the United States is by far the biggest player.
Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2023