WASHINGTON — President Bush will continue his formal exit from the world stage when he arrives in Japan on Sunday for his final annual meeting with leaders from seven of the world's other top economic powers.
With the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido as a backdrop, Bush and the other heads of the so-called "Group of Eight" nations will wrestle over what to do about the unsettled international economy, high oil prices and climate change.
But with the G-8 leadership in flux and several of its members crippled politically by their unpopularity at home, questions abound about what they can accomplish during their three days together. Attending will be leaders from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia. The first seven invited Russia to join the annual affairs in the 1990s to encourage its turn to democracy.
"We used to live in a world where the seven, then eight, had so much power and wealth it (the G-8) could somehow steer the agenda," said Carlos Pascual, the director of foreign policy studies for the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center. "We live in a very, very different world, and the headline out of this meeting, I think, is the time of the G-8 as the center of global power-brokering is over."
Some analysts think that Bush's domestic lame-duck status will hinder his effectiveness in Hokkaido. They say that some of his G-8 partners, tired of locking horns with him on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to his administration's staunch opposition to the Kyoto climate-change treaty, aren't sad that this will be his eighth and final summit.
"People read the American poll numbers and realize there's no juice behind Bush," said John Hulsman, an analyst for the German Council on Foreign Relations, a research center. "They (other G-8 leaders) will be polite, they'll be respectful, they'll listen to him, but they can't wait for him to leave the room."
Administration officials bristled when they were asked whether Bush's authority within the G-8 will be diminished at this summit because he has less than seven months left in office.
"This is the president of the United States," said Dan Price, the assistant to the president for international economic affairs. "He has been a catalyst within the G-8 for a number of ... principles and policies, and will continue to do so."
In fact, Bush intends to deliver a legacy-building farewell message to the G-8 that it must be held accountable and deliver on the promises it's made over the years, particularly on its commitments to double development assistance to Africa by 2010 and to combat HIV/AIDS and malaria on the continent.
It's a hard message designed to show a softer side of Bush.
"I think his recent tour of Europe showed very clearly that what he's trying to establish in international opinion now is that he's basically a decent guy whose heart is in the right place," said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow in the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center. "And insofar as he gets a chance to do that in Hokkaido, I think he'll try to do that."
Energy-related issues will dominate this year's summit, with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda looking to push climate change as the key issue.
Fukuda would like to see the G-8 forge an agreement to cut carbon emissions — the main greenhouse gas — in half by 2050. He hopes that an expanded meeting at the G-8 with eight other major economic nations — including China — will propel momentum for talks led by the United Nations on a framework for cutting carbon emissions after the Kyoto Protocol's first phase ends in 2012.
Bush has balked at any climate change deals that don't include emerging economic powers such as China and India, a stance that White House officials reiterated this week.
Julianne Smith, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Europe program, said G-8 leaders were putting off discussions about medium-term climate-change goals until 2009 to sidestep possible opposition by Bush.
"The expectation is that either (John) McCain or (Barack) Obama would be a little bit more forward-leaning and we could make some headway," Smith said. "So essentially what we've done is we've kind of kicked the can down the road."
International scientists have reached a consensus that the window for curbing global warming is closing fast, however. James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in recent congressional testimony that the United States in the next year must lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent disastrous changes to the planet.
Rising oil prices also will dominate G-8 discussions. Crude oil prices have climbed more than 48 percent this year, and producing and consuming nations differ as to why.
The United States and other big consumers say that supplies aren't keeping pace with growing demand, while Saudi Arabia and other producers counter that financial speculation is to blame.
With producers and consumers disagreeing on the root cause, it seems unlikely that the G-8 leaders can do or say anything to bring down high oil prices.
"I don't expect to see anything come out of it," said Timothy Evans, an energy markets analyst for Citigroup.
Hulsman of the German council said there wouldn't be progress on oil prices in Hokkaido because a key player wouldn't be there.
"You need the Saudis in the room to do anything," he said. "No deal is going to come through the G-8 mechanisms without the Saudis in the room."
Similarly, little progress is expected on the international economy, as the United States and Europe are pursuing different approaches to combat their financial woes.
Both face rising annualized inflation — 4.2 percent in the U.S. and 4 percent in Europe — which argues for higher interest rates.
Europe is moving more quickly to raise rates, however, which is causing the U.S. dollar to weaken. And a weaker dollar is one of the reasons for today's high oil prices.
"On the dollar, people will be talking about it in the corridors, but I very much doubt anyone will say anything specific," Dale said. "I think that, on the whole in the economic section, you'll find that the leaders will sort of fumble forward while trying to look as if they're more in control than they actually are."
(Renee Schoof contributed to this article.)
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