London | President Joe Biden's itinerary this week in Europe is dominated by the ongoing war in Ukraine and his continued efforts to rally an international coalition against Russia's invasion of its neighbour.
But first, some tea.
The US president's initial stop on his three-nation trip is Britain, where he'll meet with King Charles III for the first time since the latter was crowned in May. Biden did not attend Charles's coronation, sending first lady Jill Biden instead, and Monday's visit will be marked by a bit of royal pomp — including a royal salute, a viewing of US-related artifacts at Windsor Castle and teatime for the two men.
Biden and Charles will also use their visit to bring attention to climate issues, hosting a forum that will focus on how to encourage private companies to engage in more clean energy efforts, specifically in developing economies.
“The president has huge respect for the king's commitment on the climate issue in particular, that he has been a clarion voice on this issue and more than that, has been an actor, someone who's mobilised action and effort,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One as Biden travelled to London. “So the president comes at this with enormous goodwill.” That visit is paired with the sixth meeting between Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak since Sunak assumed his role in October. It's all meant to highlight the so-called enduring “special relationship” between the US and the United Kingdom.
When Biden declined to attend Charles's coronation, he promised the king in a phone call that he would visit soon.
Biden last had formal talks with Charles, then prince, at the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. The US president also attended the state funeral of Charles's mother, Queen Elizabeth II, in September as well as a reception for heads of state at Buckingham Palace the night before the service.
The climate portion of Biden and the king's visit also underscores the high priority that the environment has been for the 74-year-old Charles, who has long fought to protect wildlife and battle climate change. Formally called the Climate Finance Mobilisation Forum, Biden and Charles will be briefed by officials from the financial and philanthropic sectors on their discussions about expanding clean energy initiatives in developing nations.
Before making his way to Windsor Castle, Biden sat down with Sunak in a session that the White House said will focus on a range of global issues but is sure to be dominated by their continued efforts to back Ukraine.
The two nations have been among the most stalwart defenders of Kyiv, and the UK has pushed the White House to take more aggressive steps in providing military aid to Ukraine.
But now it's the Biden administration that has taken steps that 10 Downing St. feels go too far, with the US president's decision this week to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions, a weapon that more than two-thirds of the members of the NATO military alliance have barred for their potential threat to civilian life.
Biden has acknowledged that providing the bombs — which open mid-air and release smaller “bomblets” across a broad swath of land — was a “difficult decision” but he noted that the Ukrainians are running out of ammunition and that the weapons were necessary for them to continue their fight against Russian forces.
“It took me a while to be convinced to do it,” Biden said in a CNN interview ahead of his trip to Europe. “But the main thing is, they either have the weapons to stop the Russians ... from stopping the Ukrainian offensive through these areas, or they don't. And I think they needed them.” Sunak, for his part, has distanced himself from the US decision.
“The UK is signatory to a convention which prohibits the production or use of cluster munitions and discourages their use,” he told broadcasters on Saturday. The US is not a party to that agreement.
“We will continue to do our part to support Ukraine against Russia's illegal and unprovoked invasion, but we've done that by providing heavy battle tanks and most recently long-range weapons, and hopefully all countries can continue to support Ukraine,” Sunak added.
Sullivan downplayed the disagreement over cluster munitions, saying that “I think you will find Prime Minister Sunak and President Biden on the same page strategically on Ukraine, in lockstep on the bigger picture of what we're trying to accomplish and as united as ever — both in this conflict and writ large”.
And as the two leaders met over tea in the garden of 10 Downing St. on Monday, they continued to project that face of unity.
“We've only been meeting once a month,” Biden said jokingly as he declared the relationship between the US and UK was “rock solid”. Sunak added that their countries are “two of the firmest allies in that alliance”.
The prime minister's office said the meeting “will be an opportunity to monitor progress on measures and initiatives under the Atlantic Declaration,” which the two leaders signed when Sunak visited the White House last month.
“This includes negotiations which have now begun on a UK-US Critical Minerals Agreement, which will support the UK and US' shared leadership in green technology,” the statement said.