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In his 1st White House visit, Rishi Sunak talks Ukraine, AI — and how to say his name

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

First there was Boris Johnson and Brexit, then lots of political turmoil. But Britain is back - at least that is the message U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be trying to convey when he meets President Biden today. They've met several times, but this is Sunak's first trip to the White House. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from London.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: When Rishi Sunak became U.K. prime minister last year, it was right around the Indian holiday of Diwali. And Sunak is the first U.K. prime minister of Indian descent. So President Biden gave him a shout out at the White House Diwali party.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Rishi...

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: Rishi Sunak is now the Prime minister.

FRAYER: But he slaughtered his name. Then when Biden did back-to-back phone calls with NATO allies months later...

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BIDEN: German Chancellor Scholz, French President Macron, Prime Minister Sunak.

FRAYER: ...He did it again, so did his press secretary.

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KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: President Biden looks forward to speaking with Minister Sunak.

FRAYER: Which left some here in London with the impression the Biden administration hadn't learned who the U.K. prime minister is. When Biden came to the region in April for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday peace accords, it was an opportunity to make amends. But he spent four days in Ireland and only a half-day on the U.K. side. Biden later told a fundraiser in New York that he only went to, quote, "make sure the Brits didn't screw around."

KARIN VON HIPPEL: I don't think any of it was a snub. I think Biden does speak, you know, off the cuff. We know he cares about Ireland, but he also really cares about the United Kingdom.

FRAYER: Karin von Hippel is a former U.S. official who runs a think tank in London. She says Biden actually really values the so-called special relationship with the U.K.

VON HIPPEL: President Biden is the old-fashioned Atlanticist American president. He cares a lot about partnerships and alliances.

FRAYER: Alliances like NATO, key to U.S. and U.K. security, especially since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Kim Darroch, a former U.K. ambassador to Washington, says today's talks will focus on Ukraine, where the U.K. is still very much a player.

KIM DARROCH: There has been an unusual level of political turbulence. Sunak, though, will want to get the impression across that stability has been restored. As for Britain's place in the world, we're the second biggest contributor in terms of military assistance to Ukraine. We are the second largest contributor to NATO. There's no question, I think, that we can still bring something to the table.

FRAYER: On the table is also the top job at NATO. Sunak wants Biden to back the U.K. defense secretary for it. He'd also love a trade deal with Washington. But there's little hope of the latter anytime soon, says political economist Mujtaba Rahman.

MUJTABA RAHMAN: Perhaps there will be a carve-out for electric vehicles to effectively protect the U.K. car industry from the impact of subsidies the U.S. is doling out. You know, can one trumpet that as a major policy win compared to the ambition of a few years ago? It feels a bit small.

FRAYER: A small takeaway for Sunak, whose conservative government is largely opposed to the kind of government spending that's become Biden's signature. Sunak may also pitch Biden on an artificial intelligence watchdog in London, Rahman explains.

RAHMAN: There's something of a scramble now by Sunak to try and forge an influential and important role in this very quickly emerging and maturing AI debate. I think it's going to be very hard.

FRAYER: Because the European Union is a leader on AI, and Britain is no longer part of that. So as Mr. Sunak goes to Washington, he'll be looking for any wins - a photo-op exuding stability, a continued role in talks on Ukraine and, hopefully, a U.S. administration that's learned how to pronounce his name.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.