On the Plane

G-8 Sherpas

By Michael Abramowitz

TOYAKO, Japan, July 6 -- Sherpas typically refer to the Nepalese porters who help climbers reach the top of Himalayan mountains. But here at the annual summit of the Group of Eight nations, sherpas and their sidekicks, the sous-sherpas and yaks, are different sorts of characters altogether.

These are the mostly faceless bureaucrats who are responsible for developing the agenda and statements their leaders are considering this week at the yearly meeting of the leading industrialized nations here. Their work, conducted during the past year in face-to-face meetings, conference calls, and countless e-mail exchanges, will help determine whether the final G-Eight summit of the Bush presidency is a success.

Some of the most accomplished diplomats in the world are sherpas. The French sherpa this year, Jean-David Levitte, is a former ambassador to Washington now serving as diplomatic adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy

The U.S. sherpa this year is a relatively new face on the international scene, Daniel M. Price, 52, a well-regarded trade lawyer in Washington who joined the administration last year as the top White House staffer on international economics after years of gentle prodding from his old friend Joshua M. Bolten, the chief of staff. The two worked together in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, and Bolten has been trying to recruit his old pal into the administration from its early days.

Bolten finally succeeded last year--after telling Price he could no longer call him to complain about the administration unless he joined up--and Price has become the White House staff point-person on a range of sensitive issues, such as trade, food and asistance for Africa, a big priority for President Bush.

In recent months, much of Price's focus has been on working with other sherpas to lay the groundwork for the Group of Eight summit, which opens Monday and which will focus on some hoary standards (climate change and non-proliferation) and some new crises (the run-up in food prices and the world economic meltdown.)

To that end, Price has already been to Japan four times, accompanied by a personal assistant, known as a Yak in G-8 argot: While the sherpas meet in one room, the yaks are in another, taking instructions by e-mail from the sherpas. Then there are sous-sherpas for finance and foreign affairs (think sous-chef), as well as country political directors (such as the undersecretary of state in the United States), all of whom meet to discuss various issues that can come up at the summit.

"The constant questions that run throughout our sherpa meetings are first, what are the key issues to be addressed, and second, what actions can we, the G8, take that will make a positive contribution," Price said in a brief interview Friday, just before leaving Washington Saturday with Bush for the summit.

That's where the wrangling comes in. The Sherpas have been trading communique language for weeks on contentious issues like global warming, looking to bridge competing approaches favored by Europe, Japan and the United States. The Japanese host, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukudo, is looking for a strong statement on goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, while Bush wants to make sure developing countries such as China and India are included in any new climate change regime.

New issues pop up: One late entrant is Zimbabwe, where officials are anticipating a strong denunciation of President Robert Mugabe and his widely discredited re-election from the world leaders gathered here.

Price, at the behest of Bush, has also been trying to introduce a new element into the G-8 deliberations--accountability. Over the last several G-8 summits, the United States and other countries have made ambitious commitments to provide new aid to Africa, train international peacekeepers and other initiative: The United States is pushing the G-8 to release a report detailing whether the promises are being met and set up a mechanism to monitor progress in the future.

Despite initial resstance, Price and and other U.S. officials appear guardedly optimistic the efforts will bear fruit this week. "It's often a difficult step for a country to take to say let's monitor, evaluate and report our progress--but it's a very important step," Price said.

Price has little use for the notion that there's not much to be accomplished at this year's summit because of Bush's lame-duck status, dismissing the suggestion that the president's clout has been diminished with other world leaders "This is the president of the United States," he told reporters at a pre-trip briefing at the White House last week. "He has stood for some very important principles and policies. He has been a catalyst within the G-8 for a number of those principles and policies."

Bolten, for one, likes what his old friend has been up to. "Dan is extra smart, tenacious, and fearless," he says. " Plus he has the complete confidence of the president. That's the recipe for a superb sherpa."

By Washington Post Editor |  July 6, 2008; 12:25 PM ET  | Trip:  Bush at G-8, July 2008
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

To WP Editors:

I would be appreciated if WP writes more about global coalition that Bush has built and the importance of G-8, and why all former presidents worked so hard to keep it.

American voters just do not know such historical facts, and you should inform them as one of the world's leading news organizations.

Please raise the bar to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century: The world is reading your newspaper.

Posted by: Premier | July 8, 2008 9:49 AM

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