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World leaders head into G-8 gathering politically weakened

WASHINGTON—President Bush and the leaders of seven other major nations will hold a two-day summit in Scotland starting July 6, all eight of them so weakened politically by waning popularity back home that they may not be able to do much.

Financial help for Africa and climate change will dominate the official agenda of the so-called "Group of Eight" summit when it convenes amid the green rolling hills of Perthshire. But the sinking political fortunes of all the G-8 leaders loom as large as the social and economic issues they hope to address.

Bush will arrive in Scotland on July 6 after a visit to Copenhagen to thank Denmark for its contributions to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He'll enter the G-8 meeting with the lowest public-approval ratings of his presidency, a Republican-controlled Congress that's defied him on several of his priorities and an inability so far to push his nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, through the Senate.

But his problems seem mild compared with his counterparts from Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia.

"It's the summit of dead men walking, which is why nothing is going to get done," said John Hulsman, who examines transatlantic relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington research center. "It's likely to be the swan song for a generation of leaders, especially the European leaders."

Summit organizers hope to shield the G-8 leaders from protests against free trade, globalization and the Iraq war. The largest demonstrations are planned for Edinburgh, about 50 miles away from the meeting site in the bucolic Gleneagles Hotel, a renowned golf resort.

Although Bush is sure to be the top target for criticism, the four European leaders are all politically wounded by fallout from recent voter rejections of a proposed European Union constitution and an ongoing battle among themselves over the European Union's budget.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the summit's host, won re-election this year to a third term, but his staunch support for Bush and the Iraq war hurt his personal popularity and cost his Labor Party seats in Parliament.

Compounding matters, Blair assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on Friday, presiding over a 25-nation league that's in disarray after French and Dutch voters rejected the proposed EU constitution. He's also locked in an unusually bitter argument with French President Jacques Chirac over the EU budget, which puts even more strains on EU internal relations.

"The positive scenario is that he can to some extent be the knight in shining armor who comes riding in during the U.K. (United Kingdom) presidency and saves the union from its current crisis," said Charles Kupchan, the director of European studies for the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington research center. "And how he does that is anybody's guess."

High unemployment and hot-button domestic issues such as Muslim immigration have hurt Chirac, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Berlusconi's governing coalition lost in recent local and regional elections, forcing him to cobble together a new coalition to retain power. Schroeder's party also faltered in regional elections, which led him to call for national elections this fall, a year ahead of schedule. Chirac, the man the White House loves to hate for his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq, is facing strong political challenges from within his own party and suffers badly in opinion polls.

"The issue at the G-8 is whether Europeans will spend a lot of time naval-gazing, distracted by their internal concerns," said Richard Whitman, the head of the European Program at Chatham House, a London research center.

The political funk extends to Asia and Canada.

In Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's support for the Iraq war and efforts to overhaul his country's postal and pension systems has plunged his popularity rating to below 40 percent from 80 percent in four years.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin is barely clinging to his job. His liberal government survived a confidence vote in the House of Commons by one vote in May, avoiding new elections just a year after the last one.

And in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin feels internal and external heat for his retreat from democratic and economic reforms as he continues to consolidate personal power.

"I can't remember any time in recent history where there has been such profound political weakness across the industrialized powers," Kupchan said. "Overall, this makes it more difficult for the G-8 leaders to compromise and make deals."

Moreover, spending quality time together at an 850-acre five-star resort probably won't be enough to bridge the philosophical gaps that separate Bush from his G-8 partners on how much money Africa should receive and how to reduce global warming.

The seriousness of the divide was on display June 7 at the White House, when Bush politely rebuffed the visiting Blair's challenge for the world's richest nations to double their African aid to $25 billion each year and $50 billion annually beginning in 2015.

Instead, Bush pledged to spend $674 million more on famine relief and the United States agreed to join other wealthy nations in canceling $40 billion worth of debt from 18 countries, 14 of them in Africa.

He upped the ante Thursday with a commitment to spend $1.2 billion over the next five years to combat malaria, $400 million over four years to promote the education of African girls and $55 million to prevent violence and sexual abuse against African women.

The administration has tried to blunt complaints that it isn't doing enough by noting that it's tripled development aid to sub-Saharan Africa to $3.2 billion and established the Millennium Challenge initiative to provide money to countries anywhere in the world that practice good governance and sound economic policies. To further show his concern, Bush is dispatching first lady Laura Bush to Africa immediately after the G-8 summit.

"The Europeans want more money and Bush wants more accountability from African countries," Hulsman said. "Here is where you might find some movement. Bush will give in some on the money and Blair will give in some on the accountability."

Substantive deals on climate change appear less likely. Blair wants industrialized nations, particularly the United States, to deal with climate change more aggressively. All G-8 nations except the United States have embraced the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. The White House disputes the science that suggests man-made pollutants are causing the Earth's temperature to rise.

"I suspect the Bush administration will urge that their interest and research in neat-o keen technology like hydrogen fuel cells is enough," said Jerry Taylor, the director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center in Washington. "The administration's view of climate change is not going to change. Period."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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