President Obama on Friday launches an unprecedented exercise in summitry spread over four days and two cities, during which he will meet with more than 60 world leaders from four continents and grapple with issues ranging from the eurozone economic crisis to the next steps in Afghanistan and the proper international responses to Syria and Iran — all against the backdrop of a U.S. political campaign intently watched by the allies.
The president's diplomatic marathon begins in the Oval Office, where he will sit down for the first time with France's newly elected President François Hollande, whose calls for an economic blend of austerity and stimulus seem to mesh with Obama's preferences for Europe but whose pledge to pull French forces out of Afghanistan earlier than expected could complicate American efforts to wind down the war.
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From the White House, the talks move 62 miles to the north to Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains. There, on Friday night, the 38th annual summit of the leaders of the major industrialized democracies — now known as the G-8 — will begin with a dinner discussion of regional issues, headlined by Iran, Myanmar, and North Korea.
After a full day of talks on economic issues and a meeting with African leaders, the summit leaders will pack up and move their teams to Chicago, where a larger contingent of more than 50 other leaders await them for a summit of the NATO alliance. Key decisions are expected to be made on the Afghanistan war.
Before getting there, though, the president is determined to impose a simpler, less-glitzy atmosphere at Camp David, which never before has hosted more than two foreign visitors at a time. It will be in that atmosphere that the casually clad leaders on Saturday will sit around the dining room table in Laurel Cabin and get to the heart of the summit, the economic crisis gripping Europe and threatening to spill over to the U.S. economy. "This is a euro-crisis summit. It will be dominated by the crisis," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Crisis. Obama will have a chance to influence the debate, marked by the German-led calls for an emphasis on austerity and the French calls for leavening that austerity with more growth-oriented policies.
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But Tom Donilon, the president's national security adviser, said on Thursday that Obama is not going to try to exploit the differences between Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "That's not the intention of the president of the United States," Donilon said, instead stating that the president will push both sides to address the crisis "in a comprehensive way" — shorthand for a mix of austerity and growth.
The outcome is critical for both the American economy and the president's reelection campaign, reflecting the reality that the eurozone is the No. 1 trading partner of the United States. Conley said the "worst-case scenario" for Obama comes into play "should the European crisis begin to rapidly deteriorate, the impact on the U.S. economy six months before a presidential election has profound implications for our economy and for our election." And the White House realizes that is possible, leaving what Conley called "a huge cloud of uncertainty that does not seem to be dissipating." Particularly frustrating for Washington is that the key decisions will be made across the Atlantic, not here. "We're not in this game, quite frankly," she said. "This is really for Europe to sort out."¦ We are sitting in the bleachers a bit."
The discussion on some other crucial issues such as Iran, North Korea, Syria, and missile defense will be hampered somewhat by the absence of newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin's absence. Claiming the need to form his government in the wake of his May 7 election, Putin is, instead, sending the man he replaces in the top job, Dmitry Medvedev. But it is unclear whether the outgoing leader has the authority to deal with the Western leaders.
"What we don't know," said Bruce Jones of the Brookings Institution, "is whether, inside the room, Medvedev is willing to signal any shift in the Russian position on Iran. And we just have to wait to see where that ends up." There is similar uncertainty about Syria, he said, calling that "an issue that pits the West against the Russians in pretty stark terms."
Putin and Obama will meet next month in Los Cabos, Mexico, at the G-20 summit.
Hollande is not the only allied leader attending his first summit. Also new to the G-8 are Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Rounding out the attendees are merkel andPrime Ministers David Cameron of Great Britain and Stephen Harper of Canada.
This marks the first time in the 70-year history of the presidential retreat that such a diplomatic show has been attempted, far eclipsing the Camp David summits devoted to Middle East peace in 1978 and 2000. Donilon said the president moved the gathering here from its original host city of Chicago because he wanted a "small and intimate" summit. The White House views this as a "return to basics" after the annual session grew so unexpectedly from the original cozy economic discussion in 1975.
"The president wanted to pull away from that and really get back to basics," said Donilon, "really get back to the intent, which is to have the leaders of the developed economies in the world being able to talk about — face to face, in intimate sessions — the issues facing us."