Group of Eight summits once were intimate gatherings where leaders of wealthy nations breezed in to put their seal on preapproved communiqués on economic issues. But as the Group of Eight (G-8) opens its sessions Thursday, it has clearly become a key forum for exchange on tough global issues – with stark differences on display over the top agenda items of climate change and aid to Africa.
Those divides extend to urgent issues also likely to be addressed, including Kosovo, Iran's nuclear program, and US plans for a missile shield in Europe.
"Rarely do you have such a broad range of controversial issues converging at the same time at these events," says Charles Kupchan, former director for European affairs at the US National Security Council.
Still, there are hopeful signs for consensus, including a new slate of G-8 leaders who are more centrist and have warmer relations with the US. Chief among them are German Chancellor and summit host Angela Merkel, who has won admirers for her diplomatic skill.
She has been pushing for similar agreement with the G-8 nations, which involves cutting emissions by 50 percent, from 1990 levels, by the year 2050 and setting a cap of 2 degrees Celsius on global temperature increases. But President Bush threw these plans into disarray last week, when he announced his own proposal for a piecemeal approach, where individual nations set their own targets.
Amid a flurry of last-minute talks Wednesday, Mrs. Merkel met with Bush to bridge their differences on the topic, which many see as the litmus test of this year's summit, which runs through Friday at the seaside resort of Heiligendamm, Germany. While they failed to come to an agreement, Bush said he came to the meeting with "a strong desire" to work with Merkel on a post-Kyoto agreement that would reduce greenhouse gases.
On the other central issue, Africa, the key sticking is a promise made at the 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, to raise support for poor countries to $50 billion a year by 2010.
Only Canada is on track to meet its commitment, and some countries have signaled that they may not follow through. Merkel is pushing for them to keep their promises and pledge new funds to fight AIDS and other diseases.
These topics will jostle for space with emerging crises, like the controversy over Iran. The US has begun pushing for tougher sanctions in response to a report earlier this month that the country has not reined in its uranium-enrichment program.
G-8 nations are divided over the proposal, with Britain, Germany, and Japan favoring a lighter touch, and Russia resisting new sanctions altogether.
Another divisive topic is Kosovo's bid for independence, which is supported by most G-8 members, but bitterly opposed by Russia. Then there's the faltering US mission in Afghanistan. Amid spiraling violence, European leaders, particularly in Italy and Germany, are feeling heat on the home front to pull their troops out. Bush is expected to press them to up their commitments.
Personality could overshadow issues
But the issues may be upstaged by personalities, particularly Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who has been sparring with Bush about US plans to build a missile defense shield in Central and Eastern Europe and raising hackles among other G-8 leaders. Earlier this week, he threatened to target Europe with nuclear weapons unless Bush backs down.
Meanwhile, there are a number of new faces at the table at this year's summit, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, and Britain's prime-minister-elect Gordon Brown.
The shifting lineup is likely to shift the tone of the debate.
"A new generation of leaders are coming to power who are young, centrist and skilled at strategic calculating and they know they'll have to work together for another four to five years," says John Kirton, director of the G-8 Research Group, a global of network of scholars. "This bodes well for their ability to build consensus."
It also bodes well for collaboration with the US. Both Mr. Sarkozy and Merkel are friendlier with Bush than their predecessors, who split with him over the Iraq war.
Merkel, in particular, has worked hard to mend fraying US-German ties.
Many observers see the link between the two as vital to the summit's success. "Their relationship is the pivot point, not just on climate change, but on global fund-raiser for Africa, in trying to get Russia on board with Kosovo, and in resolving the row over missile defense," says Mr. Kirton.
Meanwhile, new economic powers – among them Brazil, China, India, South Africa, and Mexico – who were previously invited by the host on an ad-hoc basis are being given a more permanent place at the table. Representatives from these countries have been invited to attend the ministerial planning sessions where government representatives hammer out agreements.
Their inclusion is a sign of how much the world has changed since the original G6 – US, France, Germany Japan, Britain, and Italy – first gathered in 1975 to align their economic policies.
Developing nations coming on board
G-8 nations are realizing increasingly that they can't solve global problems like global warming and product piracy without the help of new economic powers, especially China, which is now the world's fourth-largest economy and the second-largest producer of heat-trapping gases.
"You have to bring them in, because if you don't, there are going to be huge economic convulsions," says Andrew Cooper, associate director of the Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario.
The area surrounding the summit site has already been convulsed by protests, beginning Saturday, when almost 1,000 were injured in clashes between police and protesters.