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The generation game: Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak try to bridge a 37-year divide

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WASHINGTON — Rishi Sunak, not a tall man, looked tiny against the backdrop of the vast Washington Nationals stadium, largely empty Wednesday night beneath blankets of heavy smog.

The British prime minister’s enthusiasm was undimmed 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 cricket fan than baseball guy — unlike his U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden, a regular at Philadelphia Phillies matches back when he was vice president.

When they met this week in the U.S. capital, the British prime minister and the American president tried to make the most of their mutual interests, despite the glaringly obvious differences.

It’s not just cricket vs. baseball; nor even just Conservative vs. Democrat. Sunak is 43 years old; Biden over 80. Sunak attended one of England’s most expensive public schools and is married to a billionaire heiress; Biden plays up his blue collar credentials — not to mention his Irish heritage — whenever he gets the chance.

But across gaping divides of 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 culmination of this week’s trip to Washington — Sunak’s first as U.K. prime minister — when Biden spoke in glowing terms about his counterpart’s ability to lead.

Sunak was pleased, too, with Biden’s playful nod toward the prospect of a British NATO secretary-general, talking up Ben Wallace’s long-shot candidacy when incumbent Jens Stoltenberg finally retires. And crucially for the British PM’s all-important domestic audience, Biden pronounced the special relationship “in real good shape.”

Yet Sunak’s visit to Washington was not without points of tension as he looks over his shoulder, conscious all his endeavors could soon be swept away. These leaders face parallel electoral tests next year and for Sunak, in particular, victory looks a stretch.

The art of the deal

For both men, successful diplomacy with a close ally plays well at home. Ahead of the trip Sunak was keen to advertise the two leaders’ close cooperation on Ukraine, as well as the prospect of U.S. backing for Britain’s ambition to lead the way on navigating the risks of AI. 

“There’s a lot they can do together,” said Karin von Hippel, director of the RUSI think tank and a former State Department operative. “The Americans have been grateful in many ways that the Brits have been forward-leaning on Ukraine, because it helps the Americans make the case at home.”

At the same time, von Hippel said, the growing need to regulate AI fits neatly with the two men’s common aim of responding to China’s growing influence.

Sunak has worked hard to maximize his relationship with Biden in the seven short months he’s been in office | POOL photo by Kevin Lamarque/Getty Images

Having rehearsed these common areas in advance of the trip, Sunak had a further rabbit to pull from his hat in the form of the “Atlantic declaration,” signed by both leaders on Thursday. While ultimately just an agreement to hold more talks, the British government will use the declaration to demonstrate progress on gaining access to critical minerals — and to distract from Britain’s broader failure to negotiate a long-promised U.S.-U.K. trade deal.  

Its dramatic unveiling at the White House was a typical Sunak move, said one senior U.K. official involved with the deal, who drew a comparison with the rapid reveal of the Windsor Framework agreement in February following months of negotiation with the European Union. “He’s all about the deals,” the official grinned. 

For all the warm words and joint declarations in Washington this week, the four-decade age gap between the leaders was inescapable. Biden was barely audible as he spoke softly from his chair in the Oval Office. At his side, a beaming Sunak exuded excitable energy.

Yet both men have spotted opportunities to turn the vast generational divide to their advantage. 

Generation game

During his 2020 presidential campaign Biden played heavily upon his foreign policy experience, boasting of 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-ish heads of state, some representing America’s most critical allies.

Sunak, prominent among them, might not seem like the most natural partner for the Democrat president to turn to. But according to those around Biden, the pair have meshed well.

Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, has noted the frequency with which he and Sunak have met — Thursday’s meeting being their fifth since Sunak came to power last October, and their fourth in the past four months. At Thursday’s press conference Sunak observed their wives had spent so much time in one other’s company that they have started taking spin classes together.

Privately, Biden’s aides say he has appreciated Sunak’s eagerness to lean into the relationship, and his desire to restrict engagements to solely the two leaders where possible, in an effort to get to know the president better. 

That’s gone down well with Biden, aides say, noting the president prefers to keep meetings informal and allow for personal conversation to flow. Several of their one-on-ones have run longer than expected, a sure sign the president has enjoyed the conversation and believes the bilateral relationship — and Sunak himself — are worthy of his time. Thursday’s meeting lasted 80 minutes in total, half with aides present and half without.

Officials on both sides insist the age gap has not proved an impediment. If anything, Sunak’s deference to Biden’s experience on the international stage has endeared him to the octogenarian president, multiple U.S. officials say. 

With Sunak, as with other international counterparts in their mid-40s such as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen — both of whom also met with Biden in recent weeks — the president sees an opportunity to impart 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 hope they see things the same way,” said one senior administration official who asked for anonymity to describe the president’s private conversations.

Sunak’s visit to Washington was not without points of tension as he looks over his shoulder, conscious all his endeavors could soon be swept away | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

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 of course respects Biden’s foreign policy experience.” Sunak has told colleagues he is particularly impressed by Biden’s extensive track record of dealing with China.

Not kidding around

It helps that Sunak is on a stronger footing domestically than his ill-fated predecessor, Liz Truss, meaning Biden feels time invested in the relationship is not going to waste.

White House aides also contrast Sunak’s professionalism and temperament favourably with the clownish persona of his predecessor-but-one, Boris Johnson. Biden did not appreciate Johnson’s wisecracks about G7 leaders taking off their shirts at the summit in Germany last year, according to two people close to the president.

This steadiness does not always count in Sunak’s favor, of course. The trip to Washington was tightly controlled to a fault, with no unscripted moments to seize front-page headlines back in the U.K. — in stark contrast to Johnson’s frequently colorful international adventures, and even those of David Cameron before him.

“It’s both [Sunak’s] strength and his weakness,” said a second No. 10 aide, insisting the PM hopes instead to quietly make the case for competent government.

Sunak, at least, feels at home in the U.S. — unsurprising given his extensive American connections, which include a seafront property in California. Addressing business leaders Thursday, the PM made a point of referencing his time at Stanford University, recalling how he “saw first hand the spirit of enterprise.”

The first No. 10 aide quoted above said Sunak “gets a buzz out of being here.” Another British diplomat noted Sunak was at ease with the American way of doing things — from the cultural references to the food. They suggested the PM would welcome the chance to pick up some peppermint bark — an American candy which the famously sweet-toothed Sunak lists as one of his guilty pleasures.   

Biden, too, loves sugary snacks, with chocolate chip ice cream a personal favorite. Be it policy or confectionery, the two men will seek common ground wherever they can find it.

The clock is ticking. With both leaders facing tough-looking elections next year — and both still tortured by blonde-haired predecessors who refuse to leave the scene — this newfound friendship may well be on borrowed time.

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