Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain began a two-day visit to Washington on Wednesday with a goal of aligning two allies on the challenges of artificial intelligence. But his meeting with President Biden will more likely be consumed by the here-and-now threat of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Mr. Sunak, a self-described techie who has an M.B.A. from Stanford University, will host a summit meeting in the fall on the regulatory issues raised by A.I., part of a plan to make Britain a leader in controlling this fast-developing technology. But because Britain left the European Union in 2020, it is not part of the dialogue between the United States and the European Union on how to deal with it.
“If the U.S. and E.U. agree, the rest of the world follows, and Brexit Britain is in danger of being squeezed out,” said Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to the United States. As sensible it is to confront the challenge of A.I., he added, Britain had more promising avenues to pursue with Washington.
For example, Britain’s robust military support for the Ukrainian Army has kept it a central player in the Western response to Russia’s invasion. As it has in previous phases of the war, Britain’s readiness to train Ukrainian pilots on combat jets was a catalyst for Mr. Biden’s recent shift in favor of training Ukrainians on F-16 fighter jets and eventually supplying planes.
Those decisions took on new urgency after the calamitous breach this week of the Kakhovka dam, on the front line, which Ukrainian officials blamed on Russian troops, who control the dam, planting explosives and which Moscow blamed on Ukrainian saboteurs.
If Russian forces were demonstrated to be behind the attack, Mr. Sunak told reporters on his flight to Washington, it would constitute “the largest attack on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine since the start of the war, and just would demonstrate the new lows that we would have seen from Russian aggression.”
Britain has stayed in lock step with the United States since the start of the war, with Mr. Sunak showing the same vigorous support for President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine as his former boss and predecessor, Boris Johnson.
While at the White House, Mr. Sunak will also have a chance to lobby Mr. Biden to support Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense minister, to replace Jens Stoltenberg as secretary general of NATO. Mr. Wallace routinely wins the highest approval ratings of any cabinet minister, but France prefers an E.U. candidate.
For Mr. Sunak, who faces economic clouds at home, the optics of the visit are as important as any policy outcomes. He has fared better on the global stage than at home in recent weeks, parlaying Britain’s support of Ukraine into a strong voice among the leaders of the Group of 7 countries.
Now he is making his first trip to Washington as prime minister, with a chance to deepen his rapport with Mr. Biden. The two last met one-on-one for coffee in April in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during a brief visit by the president to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr. Biden followed that with a leisurely tour of the Republic of Ireland, where he explored his ancestral roots. That drew tart commentary in London’s right-leaning newspapers, which viewed it as evidence of his bias for Ireland over England, noting that he also skipped the coronation of King Charles III a few weeks later.
British officials professed little concern about Mr. Biden’s being a no-show; Dwight D. Eisenhower, they noted, did not attend Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. And, in fact, the president is expected to make a state visit to Britain in July.
Still, Mr. Biden has at times kept Britain at arm’s length, particularly on issues like the post-Brexit trade status of Northern Ireland.
He raised eyebrows in London last month when he told a Democratic fund-raiser in New York City that he had gone to Belfast to make sure “the Brits didn’t screw around” with Northern Ireland, after Mr. Sunak negotiated a deal with the European Union to resolve trade frictions in the territory.
Mr. Biden had urged him to strike that deal in time for the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in the North. So, when Mr. Sunak did just that, diplomats on both sides expressed surprise that the White House did not give him more credit in its statement.
Yet, there are signs that Mr. Biden, 80, and Mr. Sunak, 43, are getting comfortable with each other, at least to the extent that the president is becoming more informal with him. When Mr. Sunak traveled to San Diego in March to inaugurate a submarine alliance among Britain, the United States and Australia, Mr. Biden noted that Mr. Sunak was a Stanford graduate and owned a house up the coast.
“That’s why I’m being very nice to you,” Mr. Biden said. “Maybe you can invite me to your home in California.”
For all the emphasis on Ukraine, British officials said Mr. Sunak would make trans-Atlantic economic ties the centerpiece of his visit. He announced American companies had made 14 billion pounds, or $17.5 billion, of investments in Britain, including a new Mars center outside London.
Mr. Sunak casts economic cooperation between Western nations as a bulwark against China, much as security cooperation has been against Russian aggression.
“Just as interoperability between our militaries has given us a battlefield advantage over our adversaries,” he said in a statement, “greater economic interoperability will give us a crucial edge in the decades ahead.”
But that message is complicated by the passage of the Biden administration’s health, climate and tax bill, which critics in Britain and elsewhere in Europe faulted for its subsidies to green manufacturers.
It is also limited by Britain’s departure from the European Union. Neither side is talking about a bilateral trade deal, which Brexiteers once promoted as a key dividend of leaving the bloc but which does not interest Mr. Biden.
Even on A.I., Britain is constrained by its go-it-alone status: It is no longer a member of the Trade and Technology Council, where Washington and Brussels hash out A.I.-related policies.
While in Washington, Mr. Sunak will forgo the ultimate photo opportunity for a visiting V.I.P.: throwing the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game featuring the Washington Nationals and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
British diplomats were keen for it to happen, noting that Mr. Sunak plays cricket, which would give him a feel for pitching. But Downing Street evidently saw more risks than rewards in putting the boss under lights on a baseball diamond.