President Obama joins world leaders recovering from the past year's global recession today for three days of meetings in a symbolic setting: a city rebuilding from a deadly earthquake.
It will be a fitting locale after months of government spending, bailouts and regulation aimed at fixing ailing economies. Rather than living on a cruise ship off a Sardinian island as planned, the leaders will bunk in barracks and meet in a converted police complex.
Their home for three days is L'Aquila, where nearly 300 people died and more than 50,000 were left homeless after an earthquake April 6. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi moved the Group of Eight summit there to showcase its plight.
The summit site poses challenges. Aftershocks measuring close to 4 on the Richter scale occur frequently. Security officials plan to airlift leaders to Rome if the earth starts to move more than that.
Mother Nature will be high on the agenda for another reason. The G-8, which includes the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia, and a separate 17-nation Major Economies Forum that Obama will host Thursday, represent the way station to climate talks sponsored by the United Nations in Copenhagen in December.
At times the summit will include about 40 countries. "The rise of the G-20, the rise of China and India in particular, calls into question whether this group has any purpose anymore," says Bill Antholis of the Brookings Institution.
Other topics for the week include Iran's crackdown on protests following its contested election, North Korea's July 4 missile launches, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, world trade and Third World development. The leaders also will come under pressure from Pope Benedict XVI to address poverty. Obama meets the pope at the Vatican on Friday.
The summit's focus will include:
•Climate change. Obama may try to broker a deal in which developing nations such as China and India agree to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. European leaders will be watching to see how much of a commitment the U.S. makes as well. A House-passed bill offers a start, but nations such as France and Germany want more. "They want to ensure that President Obama makes some really firm commitments," says Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
•Trade. The U.S. also is seen by European leaders as the roadblock to new global trade rules.
"Given high unemployment rates, protectionist pressures are likely to increase, not abate," says Daniel Price, who handled international economic summits for President George W. Bush and is now a partner with Sidley Austin. "The G-8, and in particular the United States, must show leadership."
•Development aid. Two issues include unfulfilled financial commitments made by France and Italy, and efforts to invest in agriculture in Third World nations to help them support themselves.
Obama, who has championed such assistance, meets with leaders from Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, South Africa and Libya on Friday morning. He travels to Ghana that night after the G-8 summit.
Between all those topics, the global economy won't be forgotten. Talks could focus on "exit strategies from some of the many extraordinary measures that have been taken," says Michael Froman, Obama's top aide for the G-8 and G-20 conferences.