Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
There are days in diplomacy that don’t go quite as planned – and I got to witness one up close this week.
Above the hammering throb of thrashing helicopter rotor blades, someone shouted: “We are turning back.”
Rain lashed the windows. Wiper blades swiped back and forth. Sodden clouds scudded by our feet. Flooded refugee camps came and went in the fog.
So near, yet so far: 3,000 miles traveled, an overnight flight, lost sleep – all following weeks of preparation. And now, only a few miles short, Nigeria’s rainy season forced a change of plan.
To fly on would have been to put Britain’s top diplomat in range of Boko Haram’s guns.
Rain didn’t win the day, but it sure changed its course.
The powerful images of suffering on the front lines of Nigeria’s near-forgotten war – a necessary tool in today’s diplomatic grab bag to shore up support – were in danger of getting washed away.
Without these images, Johnson had no way of pivoting from the big headline issues of the day in British politics – Brexit and the Conservative Party leadership – which he and his team hoped they’d left behind them in London.
So connected has the world become that no diplomat is ever really off the grid.
Even in this remote corner of war-torn Nigeria, a conflict hot zone, cell phone data is hotter – a notion unthinkable even half a decade ago to the previous generation of diplomats. A quick on-camera interview can be online in minutes.
Facing the rain, Johnson and crew quickly improvised a plan B.
Across the globe, his boss, British Prime Minister Theresa May, faced her own storm in Japan. She didn’t run in to a rain shower so much as a missile launch.
Hours before she landed to plead the UK’s case for a post-Brexit trade deal between Britain and Japan, North Korea’s Kim had launched an intercontinental ballistic missile over her host’s head.
If Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was testy when she arrived, she might have realized that getting him to sugar coat his message to her and her delegation of businessmen was out of the question.
Abe will have been in no mood to back down on Japan’s message: This nation is busy tying up an important trade deal with the European Union, and May needs to get in line and wait.
But as it turned out, May wanted to make a little rain herself, telling reporters she was planning to run for re-election in 2022, despite much speculation in domestic media that she would resign soon after Britain leaves the EU.
Down goes the Japan trade story, up goes the Conservative leadership battle. And as night follows day, so Johnson – thousands of miles away in Nigeria on his own mission – was led off message and responding to her comments.
But nowhere was it raining harder this week than in Houston, Texas.
Thanks to Nigeria’s sometimes-reliable cell phone coverage, while covering the effects of war, I’d been more or less keeping up with my family Whatsapp group on the rising water in my sister-in-law’s house.
Thank goodness she is safe now, but it’s been a worry.
Harvey has delivered President Trump an deadly diversion from his big diplomatic challenge: Kim Jong Un.
Without Harvey, eyes would have been on the US President, expecting something to match the “fire and fury” he threatened Kim with just a few weeks back.
He’s mostly left that diplomatic load for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Nothing is off the table where North Korea is concerned, we are told, other than perhaps President Trump’s undivided attention.
Rain and missiles are an odd combination, but in the era of modern diplomacy, they’ve woven an odd tapestry this week. One long thread, binding the world order together.
Kim’s missiles exposing Johnson to May’s political dodges because rain grounded his plans, and Kim dodging Trump’s fire and fury because rain swallowed his attention.
Something to think about for the diplomat planning an arduous journey hoping to further the national interest.