BERLIN (Reuters) - Leaders from the world's major industrialised nations will try to paper over deep divisions on global warming and a range of foreign policy issues when they meet on the Baltic coast this week for a G8 summit.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, host of the annual Group of Eight meeting at the elegant Kempinski Grand Hotel in Heiligendamm, has been working for months to lay the foundation for a summit breakthrough in the fight against climate change.
But her drive looks doomed after U.S. President George W. Bush announced his own climate strategy last week which rejects the approach to cutting greenhouse gases favoured by Merkel and other Europeans.
Merkel at the weekend insisted that the United Nations, rather than individual countries or groups of countries, should take the lead in global efforts to combat climate change and acknowledged she was in for a tough summit.
"We will wrestle with climate change until the very last minute," Merkel told Der Spiegel magazine.
"You will see that there are differing opinions from the fact that some things might not be in the final document."
In the absence of a climate consensus, the German hosts will be keen to shift the focus of the June 6-8 meeting to Africa.
Hit by accusations they are not delivering on promises made at a summit in Scotland two years ago to help fight poverty on the continent, G8 countries are expected to reaffirm commitments to double development aid by 2010.
The club -- made up of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States -- will also announce plans to increase funds for combating AIDS in Africa.
But differences on major global issues may overshadow the areas of consensus, even if leaders avoid any public rows.
Contentious foreign policy issues include U.S. plans to deploy a missile shield in central Europe and a push by the United States and Europe to grant effective independence to Kosovo, the breakaway Serbian province.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is dead-set against both and his combative Cold War-style rhetoric in recent weeks had the German hosts worried about an ugly confrontation with Bush.
Now that seems unlikely. Bush referred to Putin as a "friend" last week and invited him to his family home in Maine next month -- moves clearly intended to ease tensions.
AGREE TO DISAGREE
"On a lot of the big issues they will agree to disagree," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
"We should get through it without major confrontation, but that is partly because the Europeans realise changes to U.S. foreign and climate change policy won't come until there is a new president, so why rock the boat?"
Bush, who made headlines at the 2006 summit in St. Petersburg by shocking Merkel with an impromptu backrub, is not due to leave office for another 1-1/2 years.
But Heiligendamm will be the last G8 summit for Britain's Tony Blair and probably Putin, who has vowed to step down in the spring of next year. Newcomers include French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Informal meetings of the world's top industrial powers date back to 1975, when the G6 (Canada joined in 1976 and Russia in 1998) gathered in Rambouillet, France to coordinate economic policy following a global oil crisis and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates.
Now the club, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the world's growth but only about one-eighth of its population, faces accusations of irrelevance and is under pressure to adapt to a shift in the global economic balance.
In a nod to these concerns, Merkel has invited the leaders of Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa this year.
The emergence of new economic powers is not all that has changed in the three decades since world leaders first met.
As recently as 1999, when Germany hosted its last G8 summit, heads of government mixed with locals in the streets of Cologne.
But the Sept. 11 attacks, clashes between anti-globalisation protesters and police at a 2001 summit in Genoa, and bombings in London during the 2005 summit changed all that.
On Saturday, German police clashed with hundreds of protesters who set fire to cars, threw bottles and torched bins in the port of Rostock after a larger peaceful demonstration.
Up to 16,000 German security personnel will be on duty for the three-day meeting and leaders will be sealed off from tens of thousands of demonstrators by a daunting 12-kilometre fence.