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Bush Pledges to Keep Free Trade Flowing, Shun Protectionism

President George W. Bush snared fresh international support Saturday on the economy and North Korea, emerging from his final world gathering with modest wins and growing nostalgia about his turbulent tenure.

Dogged by a collapsing economy late in his presidency, Bush came away with the commitment he wanted from Asia's Pacific nations: a pledge to keep trade flowing and shun protectionism.

And Bush got a boost as the six nations involved in ridding North Korea of its nuclear weaponry agreed to meet in China in December, perhaps to finally lock in a disarmament deal.

All the while, Bush displayed a new willingness to look back on his term and speak wistfully about it, the kind of reflection he previously had dismissed as premature or pointless.

Barring a surprise trip to Iraq or Afghanistan, Bush's foreign travel as president is ending with this Pacific Rim economic summit in Peru.

"We've had our agreements, we've had our disagreements," Bush said to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a rather succinct nod to a bilateral relationship that has certainly seen better days. "I've tried to work hard to make it a cordial relationship, though."

Bush now returns to Washington to the same sober realities: an economy in tatters, feuds with Congress, and only two months left to do anything.

The 21 leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC, rallied behind the economic crisis plan that Bush and other leaders forged last week in Washington. It already had the stamp of the world's richest economies and emerging powers, including some APEC nations, and now Bush can tout that other Pacific Rim nations are united in the cause.

Most notably, the APEC leaders offered a strong statement in support of free trade. That was Bush's primary appeal when he launched a defense of open markets earlier in the day.

Evoking one of his country's darkest times, Bush said: "One of the enduring lessons of the Great Depression is that global protectionism is a path to global economic ruin."

Bush went so far as to turn the depressing financial crisis into an upbeat opportunity, describing it as a chance for world unity and prosperity. He backed up that lofty idea not with any specifics but broad principles, promoting the power of open markets and free people.

"With confidence in our ideals, we can turn the challenge we face today to an opportunity — and lead the way toward a new era of prosperity for the Asia Pacific and beyond," he said.

The Asia-Pacific leaders also pledged to reach agreement next month on the outlines of a World Trade Organization pact that collapsed in July after seven years of negotiations. But outside experts say that deal is likely dead, at least for the rest of Bush's presidency.

On the North Korea nuclear showdown, the White House announced that the six nations engaged in the matter were poised to get back to the negotiating table. Their goal is reaching terms on how to accurately verify North Korea's nuclear dismantling efforts.

The topic helped drive Bush's trip. He kept a schedule Saturday of a man short on time.

He met individually with two vital partners, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, sandwiched around a joint session of all three men. Bush had already conferred about the North Korea conflict on Friday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and then capped the last-minute run at a deal by meeting with Medvedev.

The current deal calls for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and weapons capability in exchange for aid and diplomatic concessions. The exact date of the next North Korea meeting in Beijing has not been stated.

"We'll let the Chinese announce their date," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "I think that they have it worked out."

The White House said U.S. partners were growing wary that all their work over North Korea — a long and torturous diplomatic process — might disappear without success before Bush leaves office. Starting Jan. 20, Democrat Barack Obama will preside over U.S. foreign policy.

"I think the very understandable concern of these foreign governments is, `Will the new administration do some sort of policy review. Will it try to work with some new ideas?'" said Dennis Wilder, the White House's top Asian affairs adviser.

"The one idea that all of these countries are definitely committed to is that the six-party process is the right format," he said. "They want to, if you will, put this in the most attractive place possible so that the next American administration will see its value."

Bush's session with Medvedev came at a time of tense relations between two former Cold War foes. Russia opposes the U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Europe, and the U.S. says Russia lost international standing through its war with Georgia.

"In general, though we do have points of agreement and those points of real differences ... we are prepared for the continuous work," Medvedev told Bush as reporters looked on. "I view that, in general, our work was successful."

The White House's account of the private meeting was that Bush and Medvedev had "a cordial, but honest and direct exchange," as Perino put it. The embattled state of Georgia, and the leaders' differences about Russia's treatment of its neighbor, were among the topics.

Just hours before the meeting, the White House released a statement hailing Georgia's peaceful revolution to a free society five years ago — a potential poke at Russia.

Perino said of the timing of that statement: "It was purely coincidence."

Earlier, Bush also met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Their comments to reporters underscored that Bush's last Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum has exactly the kind of farewell-tour feel that the White House downplayed ahead of the trip.

Bush's message to the Canadian leader: "It's been a joy to work with you."