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How Biden and Sunak can revitalize US-UK ties and challenge culture warriors

AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street for the House of Commons for his first Prime Minister’s Questions in London on Oct. 26, 2022. Sunak was elected by the ruling Conservative party to replace Liz Truss, who resigned.

I do not and will not agree with many of the new United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s answers to key questions. But at least his deliberative approach is preferable to his predecessor’s ill-informed policies

I only hope that Sunak can extend his cautious approach to relationships around the world and especially his relationship with the United States. While it may not seem obvious to many — including these leaders themselves — Biden and Sunak must revitalize this special relationship.

On the surface, of course, this might seem unlikely. The U.S. president is a liberal Democrat strongly influenced by the more progressive wing of that party. On the other hand, Sunak is a Conservative in a divided party

But these differences should not be allowed to obscure the many important areas where our governments can and must work together. That includes domestic politics — where, again, one might be forgiven for thinking the left and the right don’t have that much to gain from each other. And yet, Biden and Sunak have the chance to create space for a truly bipartisan and meaningfully transatlantic conversation about democracy, diversity, equality — and mobility.

After all, if right-wing populists can network across countries, why can’t mature, thoughtful leaders? To do so across ideological differences would only underscore the significance and urgency of that conversation.

Biden needs a strong partnership with London, after all. From Rep. Pramilia Jayapal’s (D-Wash.) short-lived intervention into Ukraine policy to former Trump official Jason Greenblatt blasting the Biden administration on Arab News for being insufficiently loyal to Israel, it’s clear Washington needs all the support it can get. Not to mention that, as Greenblatt’s bluster indicates, Democrats face sustained headwinds eroding historic bases of support.

As head of the Conservatives, a strong Sunak could push back against such unsettling extremism, should he choose to. And he would be wise to: Without an amicable partnership with Washington, there is no answer to Britain’s many crises. 

From the tactical and the strategic, however, we travel to the moral and the conceptual, where Sunak and Biden have further reason to cooperate.

As we have seen in the past, Biden has no personal truck with the right. It is rather the distortion of that movement into naked racism and open bigotry that so concerns and confounds him. A revitalized special relationship would reaffirm the promise of liberal democracy at a dangerous time; our allies, including declining democracies like India, would see that the West is strong enough to contain significant differences. Even where we do not see eye-to-eye, we nevertheless stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

That is what makes the special relationship special: Our societies change, struggle and evolve. In the United States and the United Kingdom, our populations are changing rapidly. Asian populations are among the fastest-growing demographics in both countries. If our populations are changing, our possibilities are changing. The conversations we have had thus far are clearly inadequate. Democrats would do well to consider Sunak’s ascent more objectively.

His rise reveals the casual essentialism that plagues many of my colleagues, who assume that race, ethnicity and religion singlehandedly determine politics, issues and votes. That said, there is much for Sunak to learn, too. Boris Johnson’s premiership ended when his frequent deceits were fully revealed. Liz Truss’ time in office ended abruptly because, despite all her claims to the contrary, her policy agenda was nakedly elitist and indifferent to the suffering of most. If Sunak hopes to stand any chance, he must acknowledge the vast trust deficit that exists between politicians and citizens. Addressing that means making accountability and transparency the cornerstone of his tenure. 

In other words, theirs is an awkward embrace — but one neither Biden nor Sunak can easily pull away from. They might as well make more of it. Everyday voters are sick and tired of the tirades and are desperate for practical ways forward. To have a Conservative, Hindu prime minister standing alongside a Democratic, Catholic president scrambles the dangerous categories our culture wars depend on and endlessly reproduce.

No doubt, both countries face threats from Russia and China. We must confront climate change. We must get a handle on our energy crisis. But we cannot do any of these things if we are trapped in turbulent politics that lurch wildly from one extreme to another. While polarisation in my country is not nearly as severe as it is in yours, having three prime ministers in a matter of months is hardly reassuring.

We must develop a new discourse that renews our democracy instead of kneecapping it.

Rhetorically, of course, it will be meaningful for Biden and Sunak to embrace one another. But substantively, too. What if Biden and Sunak invested in cultivating a new space in our special relationship, a genuinely transatlantic conversation about equality — about equality of opportunity, cutting across differences of religion, color and class? Not because those differences aren’t real, but because those differences must not determine who we are, let alone what we can achieve.

It would be good for both heads of state, of course. But it would also mean both countries grow and evolve together, that we transcend this moment of bitter fractiousness and model for each other and for the wider world how differences do not have to destroy democracy.

Muddassar Ahmed is a visiting fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Leadership Initiatives. He is a former U.K. government advisor. Follow him on Twitter: @mmuddassarahmed.

Tags Biden Boris Johnson Culture Wars Jason Greenblatt Joe Biden Liz Truss political divisions Politics of the United Kingdom Politics of the United States Pramila Jayapal Rishi Sunak US-UK relations

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