The PM Goes to Washington

By Beth Robertson

If there’s one thing Rishi Sunak can’t be accused of, it’s of being unrealistic. 

A thick thread of realism runs through Sunak’s foreign policy, as indeed many would argue it does through much of what he’s done thus far in his premiership. His trip to Washington this week is no exception. 

No bar has been set. Downing Street has not raised our expectations. No rebirth of the ‘special relationship’ or a UK-US trade-deal, is on the cards. The ship is being steadied. Bolstering our expectations would only serve to build up the hopes of journalists and MPs alike. In tune with a pattern that is fast emerging, in keeping with his managerial style of government, Sunak has instead talked extensively using diplomatic euphemisms of bonding over baseball, his and the President’s  wives’ shared interests, and the virtues of heavily regulated artificial intelligence. 

This is a bid to control the narrative around US-UK relations, that whilst stable and secure, does not constitute the meeting of two great, global powers.

Long-gone are Brexit-era talks of tariff free, transatlantic dealings and ‘Global Britain’s’ influence on the world stage. Instead, Sunak’s visit signifies our alignment with US priorities, and other powers’ preference for our support, exemplified by our membership of Aukus and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – security partnerships that could develop into economic ones. 

The cordiality between himself and Biden shows commitment from Sunak to layer a strong, but not necessarily equal, relationship with the United States on top of his other, foreign policy priorities. From a media perspective, this perception of a steady and respectful relationship does much to bolster Sunak’s reputation as a safe(ish) pair of hands both at home and abroad. 

The Washington visit, and any small wins that come from it – such as a critical minerals agreement, that would mean cheaper electric batteries for the UK under the Inflation Reduction Act – is a reminder of the way a politician with a managerial style of governance can get the job done. 

Indeed, even his proposal to host the world’s first Global AI summit in the UK this Autumn, and his hope that the United States will participate in such a conference,  is a small step on the path to his eventual ambition  that the UK becomes the home of global AI regulation. 

Sunak is displaying  no delusions of grandeur when it comes to post-Brexit Britain, but quiet confidence in the influence and reputation we have as a nation and our ability to work with larger powers in an effective manner. 

UK relations with the United States are just one example of how Sunak’s ship is slowly steadying. Recent polling shows him to be deemed ‘capable’, ‘clever’, and ‘reliable’. In a manner different from his bull-in-a-china-shop predecessors, Sunak is proving once again that charting a careful and respectful course, and not raising expectations, could serve Britain well.