Shifting players on the international stage will test President Obama’s foreign policy mettle at twin summits of world leaders this weekend even though the most pressing problems are out of his hands.
The Group of Eight summit beginning Friday at Camp David, the rustic presidential retreat in Maryland, will focus on the economic crisis in Europe, which has the potential to drag down the U.S. economy as well as Mr. Obama’s re-election hopes.
But so far German Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of the eurozone’s most powerful economy, has embraced a policy of economic austerity, rejecting additional government stimulus-spending Mr. Obama has advocated.
Even though the White House was disappointed by losing a solid ally when former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated by Francois Hollande in the recent election, Mr. Obama is welcoming Mr. Hollande’s focus on stimulus ideas. The U.S. president plans to meet privately with Mr. Hollande at the White House on Friday morning before leaving for Camp David.
The White House hopes Saturday’s meeting will bring the eurozone leaders closer together.
“The president looks forward to leading a discussion of having a comprehensive approach to manage the crisis and get on a path of recovery,” White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told reporters at a briefing Thursday.
But Mr. Donilon kept expectations low for the meeting at Camp David, adding that he didn’t think any actions would be announced.
“The ultimate decision … will be decisions taken in the eurozone,” he said, referring to a summit of European leaders set for next week, after the NATO meeting in Chicago on Sunday and Monday.
On Friday night, leaders will gather at Camp David’s Laurel Lodge for a working dinner focused on Iran’s nuclear development and the bloody crackdown on regime opponents in Syria.
“The pressure will be on the Iranians to exercise good faith on addressing the Iranian nuclear program,” Mr. Donilon said. “The message should be that the Iranians should seize this opportunity.”
The glaring absence of newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin, who decided to skip the Group of Eight Summit in a display of disrespect and muscle-flexing in the face of the West was startling enough. But Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whom Mr. Putin is sending in his place, stoked more anxiety ahead of the meeting by warning Thursday that Western military action against Syria or Iran could lead to a regional nuclear war.
“Hasty military operations in foreign states usually bring radicals to power,” Mr. Medvedev, president for four years until Mr. Putin’s inauguration May 7, told a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. “At some point such action which undermine state sovereignty may lead to a full-scale regional war, even, although I do not want to frighten anyone, with the use of nuclear weapons.”
The comments surprised diplomatic circles because the Kremlin has previously indicated that it is under no obligation to protect Syria if it is attacked, and it’s widely believed that it would not try to protect Iran if military action is taken there.
Other than Friday’s meeting with Mr. Hollande, the president does not plan to meet privately with Mr. Medvedev or any other leader.
The White House also announced that Mr. Obama will meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the beginning of the NATO summit Sunday, but had no plans to have a private get-together with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who is also attending.