Obama, other world leaders open G-8 summit in France; Arab Spring leads agenda


President Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrive at the Group of 8 summit in Deauville, France. (POOL/REUTERS)

President Obama met with world leaders Thursday to discuss military operations in Libya and the implications of the Arab Spring at the start of the Group of 8 summit, a forum that a year ago remained preoccupied with the global economic crisis.

The shift to national security issues this year has been driven by the anti-government demonstrations sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, a process Obama has said he will encourage with financial support for the region’s emerging democracies.

The G-8 will take up the issue Friday by calling on several multilateral lending institutions to help countries that have recently toppled long-standing autocracies avoid economic pitfalls that could undermine their evolution to democracy. The leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, whose people overthrew dictators this year, will attend Friday’s session.

The large pool of young, frustrated Arabs, short on political and economic opportunity for decades, has provided the energy behind the anti-government unrest, unfolding from Algeria through the Persian Gulf states.

But administration officials worry that weak economies will doom the revolutions before new governments take up long-demanded changes.

As the summit comes to a conclusion, the G-8 will ask the International Monetary Fund and several development banks to devise fiscal policies for Egypt and Tunisia so that their post-revolution period will not bring inflation, deficits and a sluggish economy.

G-8 members will also be called on to pledge financial help for those nations, as Obama did last week in proposing $2 billion in debt relief and loan guarantees for Egypt.

“Without economic modernization it will be very hard for governments trying to democratize to show people that democracy delivers,” David Lipton, the National Security Council’s senior director for international economic affairs, told reporters.

The summit at this wind-swept resort town brings Obama together with his key European allies, as well as with such strategic partners as Russia and Japan, at a moment he has described as “pivotal.” Lasting much of the past decade, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are entering new stages.

But Obama is also being asked to do more in Libya, a NATO-led operation to protect Libyan civilians rising up against leader Moammar Gaddafi. It is unclear, so far, if Obama is willing to commit more resources to the rebel cause.

In the morning, Obama held a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that focused on security and trade issues, including the planned U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe, a legacy of the George W. Bush administration that has been redesigned under Obama in an attempt, in part, to address enduring Russian complaints.

“We committed to working together so that we can find an approach and configuration that is consistent with the security needs of both countries,” Obama said after the meeting, with Medvedev sitting by his side.

The Russian president then told reporters that he and Obama can “lay the foundation for other politicians” but said he believes that the issue “will finally be solved in the future, like, for example, in the year 2020.”

Michael McFaul, the National Security Council’s senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs, said the reference is to the scheduled completion stage of the missile defense system.

“They have a perception that when we get to that phase that there may be some capability to threaten what we call strategic stability,” McFaul said, referring to Russian concern that the system is meant to target their intercontinental ballistic missiles. “We have no intention of doing that.”

The two leaders also discussed Russia’s entry to the World Trade Organization, which Obama has sought to facilitate as part of his project to “reset” relations with Russia.

“We are confident that we can get this done,” Obama said, calling it “a key building block” for increasing trade and commerce between the two countries.

But a number of obstacles remain for Russia, including concerns over its enforcement of intellectual property rights, the way it processes poultry, and its relations with Georgia, where Russian forces fought a war over two breakaway regions in 2008.

Obama will next visit Poland, a fellow NATO country, and meet with Central and Eastern European leaders for a summit of their own.

Some of them are concerned by Obama’s close relationship with Medvedev, who has been helpful to the U.S. president on a number of issues, particularly Iran.

Central and Eastern European leaders still fear Russia’s sometimes aggressive posture toward the region. Russia has used its energy supply and military to exert its strength in the region, most recently in Georgia.

“In Poland, I think, Obama is going to stress that the good relationship with Central Europe does not mean a bad relationship or poor relationship with Russia,” said Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is hosting this summit, whose slogan is “new world, new ideas.” For one Thursday session, Sarkozy brought in a group of Internet pioneers to meet with the G-8 leaders about the future of the Web and the global economy.

Among them was Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, who wore a blue suit and tie for the occasion.

As he entered with Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Merkel could be heard saying, “I saw it and I liked.”

“Did you see it? Did you like it?” she asked Sarkozy, who appeared to nod.

“And did you see it?” she asked Zuckerberg.

“I didn’t like it,” he said with a smile, and the others laughed.

The topic almost certainly was “The Social Network,” the movie depicting, in a sometimes less-than-flattering light, his founding of Facebook.

“Well, you don’t like this one? Maybe you’ll like the next one,” Merkel told him.

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