Heads of state -- presidents, prime ministers, dictators, whatever -- cannot know all the details of what is going on in their country much less in the other person's country.
That's why before a modern "summit" between or among heads of state, battalions of high- mid- and low-level 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" of a few heads of state 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 summit of the G-8 countries' (France, United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Canada) heads-of-state 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" (pronounced BYE-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 visit as President was with the very same President Putin and 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 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 Western - and especially American - computers. Unfortunately the story broke at about the same time of the National Security Administration's broad snooping programing so Obama was reduced to being able to say, "If anyone is going to spy on Americans' cell phones and computer files it will be the Americans, F?icháng g?nxiè."
Not exactly a firm footing for demanding better behavior by the Chinese.
With Putin's intractability - from the Obama point-of-view - over Syria and lack of enthusiasm for greater transparency in international financial transactions, not much came out of that bi-lat, either.
Comes now the odyssey of Edward Snowden - the leaker of the NSA information.
Snowden had been an employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii (following stints at the CIA and NSA) when he apparently stole and leaked the highly classified documents about the NSA's activities.
He surfaced in Hong Kong which until 1997 was a British Crown Colony, and is now under the full control of the Chinese government.
Late last week the U.S Government, under the full control of Barack Obama, asked the Chinese government to arrest Snowden and hold him for extradition to the U.S. The Chinese government, which is under the full control of Xi Jinping, refused, saying that the U.S had not provided the full legal documentation necessary.
Over the weekend it surfaced that Snowden was on the move and headed to Moscow aboard an Aeroflot plane. He is expected to move from Russia, which is under the full control of Vladimir Putin, to Cuba (who knows who runs Cuba these days), thence to Ecuador where he will request asylum.
Equador's embassy in London is where WikiLeaks' Julian Assange has been granted sanctuary so there is some reason to accept this as probable.
It appears that the U.S. State Department has finally gotten around to revoking Snowden's passport - or, at least has gotten around to announcing it - so it will be interesting to see which country has issued Snowden the necessary documents to move through multiple immigration and customs lines.
All in all, the Summits that President Obama attended with Xi and Putin do not appear to have had the hoped-for results: Better relations between the countries involved.
On the Secret Decoder Ring today: Links to the etymology of the word "summit," to F?icháng g?nxiè, to Booz Allen and to the extradition issue with Hong Kong. Also a Mullfoto showing that there is always someone willing to throw cold water on a good time.