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Biden visits U.K. ahead of NATO summit amid alliance divisions

LONDON — President Biden kicked off his high-stakes visit to Europe with a stop in London, where his meetings on Monday with King Charles III and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak were expected to be among the least contentious of his five-day trip.

While the war in Ukraine, slogging through its second year, was expected to dominate Biden’s trip to Europe, his one-day visit to London includes a broader array of topics, including the environment and artificial intelligence.

It will be Biden’s first meeting with Charles since his coronation, and aides said the two men would use the time to discuss something on which they largely agree: the need to boost private-sector investment in combating climate change.

White House officials have sought to project a sense of unity around Biden’s five-day trip, which will also include meetings at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, and a confab with Nordic leaders in Finland.

“Couldn’t be meeting with a closer friend and a greater ally,’ Biden said during brief remarks Monday, sitting next to Sunak in a garden of 10 Downing. ‘We’re doing well, and I think we’re moving away in a way that is positive. But our relationship is rock-solid.”

Even as U.S. allies have increasingly broken with Biden on issues related to Ukraine in recent days, the president has made unifying NATO and the broader Western world a key component of his reelection pitch. His meetings this week threaten to expose major rifts in the coalition of countries that has spent much of the past 500 days pushing back against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

The United States and the United Kingdom, largely aligned on global issues and each keen to tout their “special relationship,” are also working through some of the differences in their approaches to Kyiv.

Biden and Sunak shook hands and posed for pictures Monday morning at 10 Downing Street. While the two men have met often at various global summits, it was Biden’s first time visiting 10 Downing Street as president. The meeting lasted less than an hour, before Biden departed to travel about 25 miles to Windsor Castle.

Sunak said the two countries “stand as two of the firmest allies” in NATO and told Biden they would “do everything we can to strengthen Euro-Atlantic security.”

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan likened Biden’s meeting with Sunak, the sixth in the past six months, to the latest entry in a “text thread of sorts,” in which the two men will be able to update one another on various matters.

“They will have the chance to compare notes going into the Vilnius summit to talk about the issues on the agenda in Vilnius, to talk about progress in the war in Ukraine, and, of course, to talk about a range of other issues, from China to climate to technology to artificial intelligence,” he told reporters Sunday.

By contrast, Biden’s visit with Charles will be the first time the two men meet since Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in September. Biden did not attend his coronation in May.

A few days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN that the United States should invite his country into NATO “now,” Biden appeared on the same network to rebuff the request.

“I don’t think it’s ready for membership in NATO,” Biden said in an interview that aired Sunday on “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” He added that beyond resolving the war with Russia, Ukraine needed to take additional steps to become eligible.

“NATO is a process that takes some time to meet all the qualifications … from democratization to a whole range of other issues,” he said.

Others NATO allies, including Britain, have been more forward-leaning in their commentary about Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance.

Sunak said recently that Ukraine’s “rightful place” is in NATO.

Biden has pitched what’s been dubbed an “Israel option,” which would commit to give Ukraine a military edge going forward. But that approach has not yet been embraced across the alliance.

“This strategy is the coward’s way out; this is about saying to Ukrainians you should be fighting and dying for democracy, we are not willing to do so,” said Benjamin Tallis, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, which advocates for extending the U.K.-led Joint Expeditionary Force, which includes nine NATO members, to incorporate Ukraine.

The U.K. is one of several countries that have publicly opposed the Biden administration’s recent decision to provide Ukraine’s military with cluster munitions, weapons that are banned by most countries in the world. On Saturday, Sunak told reporters that Britain opposed the use of cluster munitions, noting that the country was a “signatory to a convention which prohibits the production or use of cluster munitions and discourages their use.”

Several leaders who will be at the Vilnius summit have also opposed the decision on cluster munitions. Spain and Canada, for example, have condemned their use in recent days.

The weapons are controversial because they can leave unexploded submunitions on the ground long after a conflict, posing a danger to civilians.

Biden told CNN he had to be convinced that authorizing their use was the right move. “It was a very difficult decision on my part,” he said.

After meeting with Sunak at 10 Downing Street, Biden is scheduled to travel to Windsor Castle for his visit with Charles. Buckingham Palace, which has hosted past U.S. presidents, is undergoing renovations.

Some royal commentators in the tabloids maintained that feathers were ruffled when Biden did not join other world leaders at the coronation in May, sending instead first lady Jill Biden.

Royal watchers pointed out at the time that the president’s attendance was optional — and that President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Charles will welcome Biden in the quadrangle of Windsor Castle, where he will be saluted by the Welsh Guards, while the military band will play the U.S. national anthem. The pair will also inspect the troops.

The king is a lifelong environmentalist who was early to warn of the coming dangers of global warming. The president has made mitigating climate change a centerpiece of his administration.

After their one-on-one meeting, the two men will “engage with leading philanthropists and investors as we seek to mobilize finances, support the deployment of clean energy, and mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis in developing countries,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Sunday.

U.S. special climate envoy John F. Kerry was expected to attend, as well.

Biden, 80, and Charles, 74, have each spent a lifetime waiting for top job and both face constituencies that are skeptical about their age and relevance.

Both have also had their relationships with their sons put under the microscope. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, left service as senior working royals to live in California. In a self-produced documentary series, an interview with Oprah and a Harry’s best-selling memoir, the couple have made a business out of discussing royal family dysfunction.

The president son’s, Hunter Biden, has been a newsmaker for his struggle with addiction and his business dealings in China and Ukraine.

Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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