WASHINGTON – The issues are as difficult as ever, but the conditions are likely to be more conducive to agreement as President Bush attends his eighth and final economic summit of industrial democracies.
The annual Group of Eight meeting, which begins Monday on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, comes amid economic turmoil in most of the member nations, as well as political uncertainty for many of the leaders. Oil prices are hitting new record highs and worries about inflation are mounting. Like the United States, most of the nation's major trading partners are experiencing slow growth and market declines.
And Bush isn't the only one suffering low approval ratings.
In fact, the president may have more clout at the gathering than his own low approval number — 29 percent in an AP-Ipsos poll conducted in mid-June — and the vast unpopularity of the Iraq war would suggest.
For one thing, the just-below-the-surface animosity toward him — based on his Iraq moves and perceived hostility toward what then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld derisively described as "old Europe" — is now mostly gone.
His two biggest detractors on Iraq — Germany's Gerhard Schroeder and France's Jacques Chirac — are gone from power, replaced by leaders who are much more U.S.-friendly: French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
One old partner in the Iraq war, Tony Blair, is gone, replaced as British prime minister by Gordon Brown. Brown, who is having political problems at home of his own, so far has generally had good relations with Bush. And another Iraq war ally from the past, Silvio Berlusconi, who was thrown out of office in part because of that support, is back once more as Italian prime minister and G-8 member.
"It's a G-8 with a lot of political leaders who are pretty weak," said Michael Green, a former Bush assistant on Asian affairs and now an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Still, Green said, "I don't think that the president's potential leadership role or stature is as diminished as you might think in this forum, in part because he knows them all quite well. They have a working relationship. They have a common interest in demonstrating that this forum can do something."
The gathering includes the heads of states of the U.S., Japan, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Russia.
Vladimir Putin, whose relationship with Bush was at times contentious, is no longer a head of state and is not expected to attend the session, even though his influence and authority remain in Russia in his new post as prime minister. Bush has said he looks forward to meeting Putin's hand-picked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, on the sidelines of the summit.
For his part, Bush, now a lame-duck leader, says a top priority is urging summit partners to make good on prior pledges to help poor and developing nations address challenges from health care to education to corruption. "We need people who not only make promises but write checks," Bush said at a Rose Garden news conference on Wednesday previewing the summit.
The host, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, faces his own domestic problems. His government has suffered from support ratings as low as 20 percent amid constant brinkmanship between ruling and opposition parties, including an unprecedented no-confidence vote for him in the upper house in June.
For Fukuda, who got to set most of the agenda for the gathering, the overriding issue is climate change. He would like to come out of the meeting with an agreement on 50 percent reductions in so-called greenhouse gases by 2050.
Bush said he supports efforts for the group to agree on long and short-term goals, with national plans to achieve them. But he also told reporters, "Look, we can't have an effective agreement unless China and India are a part of it. It's as simple as that. I'm going to remind our partners that's the case."
China and India are playing increasingly important roles in the world economy, raising fresh questions about the Group of Eight's relevancy as now constituted.
In 2001 at Bush's first meeting of the exclusive club, the members pretty much lived up to their billing as the world's leading industrial democracies.
No more. India, the world's most populous democracy, now has the world's fourth biggest economy, according to a World Bank rundown of the gross domestic product of countries based on purchasing power.
The U.S. remains the world's biggest economy, with Japan still at No. 2. But in third place now is China. Also, Brazil's economy is bigger than that of G-8 members Italy and Canada. In fact, the economies of Spain, Mexico and South Korea are bigger than that of G-8 laggard Canada, according to the World Bank report.
Bush spearheaded an effort to bring these and other fast-growing economies into the process, with a "major economies meeting" now scheduled for next Wednesday at the summit's conclusion.
Some want to see the group itself expanded to include China, India, Brazil and other major economies.
"If we don't take this step, G-8 risks becoming increasingly irrelevant," said Richard Burt, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. Instead of being able to deal with sensitive economic problems, "you get feel-good declarations," Burt said.