Heads of state -- presidents, prime ministers, dictators, whatever -- cannot possibly know everything that is going on in their country, much less in other countries. That's why, before a "summit" between heads of state, battalions of staffers go through every conceivable subject and produce forests of briefing papers to prepare the principal.
According to the late William Safire writing in the New York Times, the word "summit" to describe a meeting of heads of state was coined by (no surprise) Winston Churchill in 1950, when he called for a "parley on the summit" to chart the post-war world rather than, as Churchill put it, "hordes of experts and officials drawn up in a vast cumbrous array."
This is timely because in the past few weeks U.S. President Barack Obama had a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California, followed by a G-8 summit in Northern Ireland.
At a meeting of multiple heads of state (or any other level-to-level officials), there are often side meetings between just two. These are called "bi-lateral" meetings or, in the manner of those involved, "a bi-lat."
Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin engaged in a bi-lat that was largely focused on trying to find common ground on what to do about Syria -- ground that proved elusive.
George W. Bush's first European was with the very same President Putin -- Bush then proclaimed:
"I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He's a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that's the beginning of a very constructive relationship."
Notwithstanding the current status of Putin's soul, that is the very reason that heads-of-state like to meet one another in person, sometimes with only interpreters in the room.
Over a two week period Obama met with arguably his two most important competitors -- politically and economically -- in the world: Xi and Putin.
Although the White House declared that the men had wide-ranging discussions, we know that there were no broad agreements much less any breakthroughs in bi-lateral understanding.
One of the pre-summit issues that we expected Obama to raise with Xi was Chinese hacking of American computers. Unfortunately, the story broke at the same time as the National Security Administration's surveillance, so Obama was able to say, "If anyone is going to spy on Americans' cell phones and computer files, it will be the Americans."
Not exactly a firm footing for demanding better behavior by the Chinese.
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