The US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, A. Wess Mitchell, publicly announced on January 22 that he was resigning from his position as the State Department’s point man on US policy for Europe, saying he hoped to spend more time with his family.
According to reports, Mitchell notified the State Department about his plan on January 4 after handing in a letter of resignation whereby he stated that his last day as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs would be February 15.
Mitchell, who succeeded acting Deputy Secretary John A. Heffren in 2017, stated in the letter that his mission to assist in the transition from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Mike Pompeo had been accomplished and his goal of reaching out to Central European countries like Hungary and Poland had successfully come to its natural conclusion.
In a statement to the Washington Post, who first reported the story, Mitchell reiterated his confidence in Pompeo but claimed the post was taking a toll on his young family. “As the administration completes its second year in office, I feel that I have completed what I set out to do in taking this position. My kids have a greater claim to my time right now than the public does,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell joined the State Department in October 2017 from the Center for European Policy Analysis, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington focused on Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. He first came to the Trump Administration’s attention via former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who was abruptly dismissed by Trump a year ago.
Prior to being confirmed by the US Senate, Mitchell had never served as a diplomat. The long delay in 2017 before his appointment to this critical post had been considered a major problem for the State Department under Tillerson.
Mitchell’s task of overseeing relations with the European Union came at a time when Washington and Brussels are increasingly at odds over key issues including bilateral trade negotiations and broader foreign policy concerns- namely, how to deal with a militarily aggressive Russia and formulating a coordinated response to Iran’s transgressions following the US’ decision to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
During his tenure at State, he pushed to engage parts of Europe – namely former Eastern Bloc countries – that had turned against Brussels’ neo-liberal economic and social policies. His engagement with Viktor Orban‘s Hungary and the arch-conservative government in Poland angered many within the European Union establishment, most of whom view Orban and the current Polish government as enemies of the European Project. Mitchell claimed his attempts to reach out to Budapest and Warsaw was part of a larger attempt to counter the growing Russian influence in the EU.
Mitchell’s resignation also comes at a time when another American, anti-Russian initiative in the Balkans appears to be gaining headway – the resolution of the Name Dispute between Greece and its northern neighbour FYROM/Macedonia, opening the way for the newly-renamed country of “North Macedonia” to join NATO and the EU.
The jury remains out as to whether the balance of Mitchell’s initiatives were successful and the fact that diplomats from countries that were under his purview only learned of his departure more than two weeks after he gave notice to his superiors raises questions as to the exact circumstances behind his decision to step down.
Most US ambassadors assigned to Europe have been in Washington for the last week or so, brought home for a Europe-wide ambassadorial conference that Mitchell chaired.
Mitchell’s work will be handled on an interim basis by Deputy Assistant Secretary Elisabeth Millard.