Keir Starmer’s first foreign trip as UK PM to Washington

In a significant move on the international stage, Keir Starmer embarks on his first foreign trip as the newly elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The visit to Washington marks the beginning of a whirlwind of diplomacy just days after his landslide election victory. Starmer, aged 61, will meet with US President Joe Biden at the White House on July 10, 2024 marking their first face-to-face discussions.

This initial engagement between Starmer and Biden is set to reaffirm the enduring support of the United Kingdom for the Western military alliance, NATO, and for Ukraine in its ongoing conflict with Russia. Starmer’s presence at the NATO 75th anniversary summit in Washington underscores the importance of this alliance and the UK’s commitment to international security.

The visit offers Starmer an opportunity to establish his rapport with President Biden, who faces his own political pressures ahead of the November presidential election. Biden’s position within the Democratic Party is under scrutiny, and there is speculation about his potential successor to face Republican Donald Trump. Starmer must navigate this sensitive political landscape, preparing for the possibility of dealing with either Biden or Trump in the near future.

Starmer’s administration is committed to continuing the UK’s support for Ukraine. Britain’s previous Conservative government was a staunch ally of Ukraine, providing financial aid, weapons, and troop training to combat Russian aggression. Starmer has pledged to maintain this support and is expected to reiterate this commitment personally to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during the NATO meeting.

The presence of Defense Secretary John Healey in Ukraine and Foreign Secretary David Lammy’s visits to European NATO members further emphasize the UK’s dedication to its allies. Labour’s promise to match the Conservatives’ commitment to raising defense spending to 2.5 percent of GDP, surpassing the NATO target of 2 percent, highlights a continuity in foreign policy.

While Starmer’s foreign policy will emphasize continuity on major issues, he is also keen to signal a reset in relations with allies strained by Brexit. Labor has pledged to foster closer cooperation with European neighbors, aiming for bilateral deals with France and Germany and broader agreements with the EU bloc. This approach seeks to enhance stability and predictability in the UK’s international relations, addressing concerns raised during the Brexit period.

One of the pivotal aspects of Starmer’s visit is the opportunity to strengthen the “special relationship” between the UK and the US. This relationship, historically robust, is expected to be bolstered by the ideological alignment between Starmer’s center-left Labor Party and Biden’s Democratic Party. However, the visit comes at a sensitive time for Biden, who faces pressure to pave the way for a new Democratic candidate to challenge Republican rival Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential election.

Starmer, mindful of the potential shifts in US leadership, aims to demonstrate his unwavering commitment to the UK-US alliance, emphasizing the resilience of the “special relationship” regardless of future political changes. Sophia Gaston, head of foreign policy at the Policy Exchange think-tank, highlights that Starmer’s visit sends a strong signal about the enduring nature of this bilateral relationship, preparing for any eventualities in the US political landscape.

While the primary focus of the discussions will be on reaffirming alliances and mutual commitments, certain contentious issues are likely to surface. One such issue is the war on Gaza, with Labor traditionally viewed as slightly more pro-Palestine compared to Washington’s stance, despite controversies surrounding both leaders’ pro-Israel positions. Additionally, policy towards China, encompassing trade, commerce, and technology, will also be on the agenda, reflecting the broader strategic concerns shared by both nations.

Following his Washington visit, Starmer will host the European Political Community summit at Blenheim Palace on July 18. This summit, attended by key European leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, represents a critical opportunity for Starmer to flesh out Labour’s vision. for post-Brexit relations. Labor aims to secure an “ambitious” security pact with the EU, enhancing cooperation on various fronts.

Olivia O’Sullivan, director of the UK in the World program at Chatham House, notes that these summits provide an opportunity for Starmer to add substance to his proposals for closer European ties. This includes potentially shaping a new post-Brexit trading deal, positioning the UK as an influential player in global affairs.

Keir Starmer’s debut on the world stage as UK Prime Minister signifies a new chapter in British diplomacy. His visit to Washington and subsequent hosting of the European summit underscores his commitment to maintaining strong alliances while signaling a reset in relations strained by Brexit. As Starmer navigates these initial diplomatic engagements, he aims to establish himself as a stable, predictable, and reliable leader on the international stage, ensuring that the UK’s voice remains influential in global affairs.

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