May 16, 2012
WASHINGTON — More than two dozen world leaders will join President Barack Obama in an extraordinary weekend of back-to-back summits to tackle Europe’s mounting economic woes and solidify plans for winding down the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
The Group of Eight economic summit and the national security-focused NATO meeting will be infused with politics from every angle. For Obama, the summits are a unique election-year opportunity to show leadership on the world stage without having to leave the U.S.
But with some new faces around the conference tables, Obama and the other leaders will be confronted by the stark reminder of the political turmoil from Asia to Europe that cost several of their old counterparts their jobs.
Since late 2011, public frustration with Europe’s debt crisis has led to the ouster of leaders in Italy, Spain, Greece and most recently, France. Two other members of the G-8, Britain and Japan, have had leadership shake-ups since Obama took office.
Obama is fighting for his own job in a campaign expected to hinge on the economy. He has had the good fortune of being able to hold both summits this year in the U.S., allowing him to tailor the meetings around his election-year messages of expanding the economy, creating jobs and ending the war
The summit locations rotate annually for each organization.
Leaders from the world’s eight leading industrialized nations arrive in the Washington area on Friday for meetings at Camp David, the wooded presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. Immediately following the G-8 summit, Obama and most of the other leaders will fly to Chicago Saturday evening to join other heads of state from NATO.
Obama originally planned both meetings for Chicago, his hometown. But the White House abruptly scrapped those plans in March, announcing with little explanation that the G-8 would shift to Camp David.
It was an unexpected move from Obama, who rarely spends time at Camp David and has never hosted a world leader there, unlike many of his predecessors. The White House said that location would lend itself to more intimate talks. It also will keep them far from the protests that usually flare on the summit fringes.
But U.S. and other diplomats said a major reason for the switch was to appear welcoming to Vladimir Putin, who recently reclaimed the presidency in Russia. Putin planned to skip NATO because of his staunch opposition to the alliance’s planned missile defense shield, and separating the two meetings was seen as a way to give Putin cover to slip away less awkwardly.
Yet in a move widely perceived as a snub, Putin told Obama last week that he was skipping the G-8 as well in order to stay in Russia and focus on forming his government. Russia’s former president and current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, will attend the G-8 sessions, which also include the U.S., Japan, Britain, France, Italy and Canada.
White House officials insisted Putin’s presence was not a factor in their decision to move the G-8 summit.
The G-8 talks are expected to be dominated by the eurozone crisis, though Obama administration officials are keeping expectations for tangible agreements low. While the health of the U.S. economy is closely linked to Europe’s stability, Obama has made clear that he has no appetite for ponying up American money to help bail out the continent.
Instead, Obama will largely play the role of facilitator, urging European leaders to balance calls for austerity, largely driven by Germany, with a growth agenda.
“This is really for Europe to sort out,” said Heather Conley, a Europe expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We are sitting on the bleachers a bit. And we are going to have to watch how this plays out with the frustration in recognizing that it will have a profound impact for the global economy and for the U.S. economy.”
Obama will have a new ally in his calls for a growth agenda in Europe, new French President Francois Hollande. But administration officials say Obama plans to caution Hollande, France’s first socialist president in 17 years, that Europe cannot abandon budget-cutting entirely.
Obama will host Hollande at the White House for a meeting Friday before the G-8 summit begins.
Hollande will be in the spotlight as the weekend of summitry moves to Chicago, where NATO will firm up plans for how the alliance will finish its shift from a combat role in Afghanistan to an advisory role next year. The alliance will also reaffirm its commitment to fully ending the combat mission in Afghanistan by 2015.
Hollande campaigned on pledge to speed up the withdrawal of France’s 3,400 troops from Afghanistan and pull them out by the end of the year. But he recently acknowledged that a fast-track pullout might force the French to leave behind some military gear, and some U.S. officials believe he is likely to try to find some wiggle room, perhaps by leaving some forces in Afghanistan in an advisory role.
The NATO-backed plan for drawing down in Afghanistan is an important part of Obama’s campaign message about the increasingly unpopular war. But Obama is not expected to announce the next steps in the U.S. withdrawal plan from Afghanistan during the summit.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be in Chicago, and NATO also has extended an invitation to Pakistan, which has a vital role in ensuring stability in the region after the U.S. and other foreign forces draw down. The invitation to President Asif Ali Zardari was a signal of rapprochement between the U.S. and Pakistan and a sign that Islamabad is ready to reopen its western border to U.S. and NATO military supplies heading to Afghanistan.
The NATO meeting also will showcase the effort to get firm financial commitments from inside and outside the alliance for support for Afghan forces. NATO argues that even the projected bill of about $4 billion annually is cheaper than the cost of war. But it is not clear that several European governments have the budget or the will to keep paying. The U.S. expects to pay much of the total, but U.S. officials say Washington cannot do it alone.