PRAGUE (Reuters) - President George W. Bush began an eight-day trip to Europe on Monday with his popularity at home at a low point over the Iraq war and tensions abroad over global warming and missile defense.
The centerpiece will be the Group of Eight summit in Germany, where Bush will hold a closely watched meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid deteriorating U.S.-Russian ties.
Tensions will also run high on climate change. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had hoped to forge an agreement on the issue at the summit, a goal put in doubt when Bush proposed a new strategy on global warming last week.
“If you couple Bush’s weak position at home with this unpopularity in much of Western Europe, Bush is probably not relishing this trip,” said Charles Kupchan, director of Europe Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Particularly on the question of climate change, he will find himself isolated.”
Bush made the Czech Republic his first stop. In picturesque Prague on Tuesday, he will address an international conference of human rights and democracy activists.
Ahead of the G8 summit, Europeans gave a cool reception to Bush’s plan to bring together the world’s biggest polluting countries by year-end to explore ways of limiting emissions and agree on a long-term goal by the end of 2008.
Some portrayed it as a defeat for Merkel, who wants the G8 to agree now on cutting emissions of greenhouse gases about 50 percent by 2050.
But Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, told reporters on the president’s plane: “This is not about upstaging Angela Merkel. Quite the contrary ... it is an effort to identify a way forward.”
Kupchan said the general view in Europe was, “Let’s be patient, November 2008 is coming,” referring to the next U.S. presidential election, which will herald the end of Bush’s term.
The weeklong tour, with stops in the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, Albania and Bulgaria, includes several firsts. Bush will meet new French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Germany and Pope Benedict at the Vatican.
Putin has warned that Russia will go back to its Cold War stance of aiming missiles at Europe if Washington pursues its plan for a missile defense shield near Russia’s borders. Hadley said Putin’s comments were “not helpful” and the United States wanted a constructive dialogue.
Putin sees the missile shield as a threat to Russia. Washington insists it is intended to protect against potential threats from states like Iran and North Korea.
In a preemptive move that could take some of the tension out of the session, Bush has invited Putin to his family’s retreat in Maine next month for two days of talks.
Hadley said that at the democracy conference on Tuesday, Bush would speak about the “challenge of promoting democracy” in countries such as Russia and China. U.S. officials have accused Putin of backsliding on reforms and have also pressed China for increased democratic freedoms.
His visit to Albania comes amid U.S.-Russian disagreement over statehood for Kosovo, which is majority ethnic Albanian. Washington backs a U.N. proposal for Kosovo independence under international supervision. Russia opposes it.