U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Stephen Harper and five other world leaders on Friday to this bucolic presidential retreat, kicking off two international summits aimed at tackling global issues ranging from the future of battle-scarred Afghanistan to the European economic crisis.

The leaders of the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan will open the G8 summit with dinner at historic Camp David, a rural compound tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the remote northwestern reaches of Maryland, before retiring to private cottages for the night.

Harper, one of the longest-serving leaders at the Camp David summit, arrives on a wave of good news. A new report ranks Canada first when it comes to G8 countries fulfilling pledges made at international summits.

The University of Toronto's G8 Research Group study also found that one of the areas in which countries are doing the worst is the maternal and child health initiative launched by Canada at the 2010 G8 summit in Muskoka. Only four countries lived up to their commitment.

Obama welcomes three fresh faces to the G8. France, Italy and Japan all have new heads of state.

Vladimir Putin, however, is skipping the meeting — an unexpected pullout that's sparked talk of escalating tensions between the United States and Russia. It's the first time in 38 G8 meetings that a leader has voluntarily chosen to skip it.

The Obama administration had moved the meeting to Camp David from Chicago in part to accommodate Putin. Instead, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will take his place.

Harper and Hollande expected to chat privately

Just days after French prime minister Francois Hollande was sworn into office, he met with Obama in the Oval Office in advance of the G8 summit. The men discussed Iran and its nuclear ambitions, and even delved into the virtues of cheeseburgers.

Hollande pledged to co-operate with the United States on the European crisis and other issues but said he reminded Obama: "France is an independent country and cares about its independence."

Harper is expected to have a one-on-one chat with Hollande as Canada and the European Union work toward a free-trade agreement.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, meantime, has been pushing Obama to consider a U.S.-EU free-trade pact.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama would defend at the G8 summit the benefits of stimulus spending to rejuvenate faltering economies rather than the type of austerity measures that have fuelled Europe's latest economic woes.

NATO meeting in Chicago

"The president has long made clear … that an approach that takes into account the need for further growth and job creation — a balanced approach that includes not just austerity but growth and job creation — is the right approach," he said.

"When we discuss this with our European allies, we can point to some of our own experiences."

Camp David's storied past

si-camp-david-160

Part of the appeal of Camp David is the retreat's tightly controlled location within Catoctin Mountain Park. The public can't get anywhere near it. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Camp David, with its winding trails and lush woods, has a storied past.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at the retreat in 1943 to discuss plans to invade Normandy during the Second World War.    Under Jimmy Carter, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty at Camp David. George W. Bush, meantime, was so fond of the retreat that he spent almost 500 days at Camp David throughout his two terms as president.

The Associated Press 

In a series of working sessions at Camp David on Saturday, the leaders will tackle not just Afghanistan and the eurozone, but food security in Africa and energy and climate issues. The sessions will take place at round tables not much larger than poker tables to encourage full and frank discussions.

After those sessions wrap up, the leaders then jet off to Chicago for meetings of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In contrast to the peace and quiet of isolated Camp David, where small numbers of protesters gathered several kilometres away in Thurmont, Md., thousands of demonstrators are expected to greet them in the so-called Windy City.

At both the G8 and NATO summits, Afghanistan's economic future and security will be a key topic of discussion.

The U.S. doesn't want to be entirely on the hook for the estimated $4.1 billion it will cost to sustain Afghan security forces when international troops withdraw at the end of 2014.

Australia, Great Britain and Germany have already contributed funds but Canadian officials wouldn't say in advance of the G8 summit whether Ottawa plans to pony up too.

Hollande wants to withdraw all French combat troops by the end of this year, nearly two years ahead of the agreed NATO schedule.

"I made a promise to the French people to the effect that our combat troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2012," Hollande said he told Obama on Friday.

Economic issues move to forefront

"That being said, we will continue to support Afghanistan, in a different way. Our support will take a different format, and all of that will be in good understanding with our allies."

The Camp David summit's other dominant focus — Europe's economic crisis — represents a shift for the G8, says the director of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto.

It used to be that the G20 focused on the economy while the G8 tackled global security and development issues, said John Kirton.

The Camp David summit changes that.

"It's going to be about a G8 strategy for growth which will be smart, sophisticated and, it is to be hoped, it will be sufficiently clear and compelling to convince markets, citizens, voters across the G8 and beyond that it will work," he said.

"So that's new for the G8. It's been many, many years since the G8 has focused like a laser beam on the economy and in containing the great economic crisis that's burgeoning at the moment."