Not since the oil shocks that first brought the world’s superpowers together in 1974–back then they called themselves the “Library Group” because they met in the White House library–has the G8 had so much substantive business on a summit agenda. In recent years, world leaders have mostly just tried to to out-do one another with pledges of development assistance, leading to stories like this one from my colleague Massimo Calabresi, that questioned the usefulness of the annual summit. Even in 2009, less than six months after the U.S. was forced to bail out Wall Street and the economy lapsed into the worst recession since the Great Depression, the agenda focused on a $22 billion food aid pledge. But when G8 members meet this week at Camp David, they’ll be hard pressed to re-up that sum. Helping poor farmers in Africa is tough when every extra cent may be needed to bail out Europe.
It’s not that Europe isn’t rich enough to save itself, but with 27 different parliaments involved, the European Union’s reaction time in a crisis is excruciatingly slow. Thanks to politicians trying to save their own careers – leaders in France, Great Britain, Italy, Ireland, Denmark, Spain and Portugal have lost elections since Obama took office in 2009 – most of the solutions on the table are mid- to long-term fixes, not good news for politicians who are up for reelection in the short term. Obama’s re-election prospects are at risk as Greece struggles to form a government and Europe stands at the brink.
(PHOTOS: Scenes from the 2009 G8 Summit)
All of that explains why this year’s G8 summit, for once, is pretty important. It’s Obama’s chance to talk to European leaders about saving their continent. Good thing he moved the summit from Chicago to Camp David: He’ll have a captive audience, unless German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a break for it through the Maryland wilderness. Here are five things to watch for at this weekend’s G8 summit:
Welcome to the Funhouse, Francois Hollande. The newly elected French President is probably rethinking just what, exactly, he won last week. The U.S. has been pushing Hollande to consider some short-term stimulus, a tough order for a guy who inherited a budget deficit already at 4.4% of GDP, well above the Eurozone guideline of 3%. Hollande ran on a pledge to return France’s deficit to 3% of GDP by next year. That doesn’t bode well for advocates of government spending, even though France’s economy grew 0% in the first quarter. On his first day in office, Hollande braved thunderstorms – his plane was, perhaps symbolically, struck by lightening, delaying the trip briefly – to travel to Germany to meet with Merkel and to push growth measures. He now goes to Camp David with the difficult task of building relationships with Obama and Merkel, who openly supported Hollande’s predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy.
Entschuldigen, Frau Merkel. Sure, Germany may have the only economy still growing in Europe – it grew at 0.5% rate in the first quarter – but Chancellor Merkel still has reason to worry. Her party performed poorly in last Sunday’s state elections. In North Rhine-Westphalia, a state Merkel won with 45% of the vote when she was elected in 2005, her party received only 26% of the vote. Up until now, Merkel has been leery of moving too quickly on the European fiscal crisis. Her reticence has been criticized by market analysts: If Greece had been bailed out four years ago it’d have cost $100 billion and avoided the crisis that’s now putting trillions at risk. She’s up for reelection next year and loath to do anything that could jeopardize her chances. At the same time, if the Eurozone isn’t rescued from the ledge, she could be the first to go down with it. The U.S. hopes to persuade her to take stronger stimulative measures, and to shore up the central bank and other big banks bracing for a Greek default.
Not everything is the economy, stupid. Yes, the crisis in Europe is dire, but there is also war to consider. Hollande pledged to accelerate France’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan when he took office. Obama will be asking–maybe begging–Hollande to hold off on that pledge. Obama needs not only troop commitments, but money from France and other G8 nations as well. It will take an estimated $4 billion a year after the bulk of NATO’s forces withdraw at the end of 2014 to fund Afghanistan’s security forces. The U.S. is on the hook for at least half that sum, but the other half remains unsecured. The funding situation has become so dire that there’s talk that Afghanistan’s security forces will peak at 350,000 in 2014 and slowly decrease to 230,000 over the next decade, a period in which they should be growing.
Bashing Bashar al Assad. Another topic of importance is the deteriorating situation in Syria. Assad’s forces are now openly engaging opposition forces in front of United Nations’ observers, abandoning the façade of a ceasefire. (Until last week, guns would go silent during observer visits to keep up the impression that everything is alright). With casualties piling up, pressure is mounting on the G8 nations to do something. But with Russia and China still blocking a stronger UN resolution, it’s unlikely that NATO would move in to protect Syria’s civilians. Still, Europe and the U.S. are coordinating their humanitarian responses and helping to organize Syrian oppositions groups. There is much to discuss.
From Russia, with love. Syria is just one of the issues that the U.S. wants to discuss with Russia at the G8. There’s also a missile shield, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea. But Russian President Vladimir Putin bailed on the summit at the last minute. Putin said he was having trouble forming a cabinet, and sent Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his stead.
As with their last summit meeting in Seoul in March, Obama will probably give Medvedev a bunch of messages for his new boss, including more requests for “space” and “flexibility,” and probably invitations to engage Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea. The U.S. badly needs Russia’s cooperation.
This year’s G8 summit promises to be the most interesting in a decade and the chemistry of the class only adds to the intrigue. From the new kid, Hollande, to the understudy, Medvedev, to those fighting for their political lives, Obama and Merkel, the politics at play are complex. But one thing’s for sure: They’ve never needed one another as much as they do now.