By Endy Zemenides
When Donald Trump nominated Wess Mitchell to serve as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in July of 2017, the American press and foreign policy community had spent months being extremely critical of the US president for leaving such a key post vacant for so long. Given tensions with Russia and Turkey, and European allies’ concerns about America’s commitment to NATO, people wondered how the Trump administration could navigate all of these issues without the post of the official that traditionally ran point on them being filled.
This week, after just 16 months on the job, Mitchell announced his resignation, citing personal reasons and adding that he was “fully supportive” of the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. “My kids have a greater claim to my time right now than the public does,” he said. It is hard – and often unfair – to dispute someone when they make a claim like that, but very few people in Washington, or in Europe, believe his justification.
I reached out to a former US ambassador who served in Europe about why he thought Mitchell was resigning. The answer? “NATO.” A senior Senate staffer told me, “This is not good” and “there is a policy reason for this.” And several Representatives responded to my inquiries with some variation of “I am concerned.”
The Mitchell resignation will obviously not garner the attention or outcry that the resignation of former secretary of defense Jim Mattis did, but it may be just as significant. The issues that led to the criticism over the assistant secretary post remaining unfilled for so long in 2017 are just as pressing. To make matters worse, Mitchell’s deputy is also slated to retire in just a few months, which raises questions about who will lead European policy in the Trump administration at a time of challenges there.
Mitchell’s resignation letter claimed that he accomplished all that he had hoped to in two years, but that is hard to believe. Halfway through President Trump’s term, US-European relations have plunged to their lowest levels in decades. The US and EU regularly clash over trade issues, they have gone from partners to antagonists over the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and Trump’s bellicose rhetoric – calling the EU a “foe” and claiming that the US is “being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies” – combined with his overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has raised questions about the US commitment to NATO. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ President Ivo Daalder, who was US ambassador to NATO in the Obama administration, said: “Mitchell’s resignation, which follows earlier resignations of all the top Europe and NATO people in the Pentagon, sends a disquieting picture to our allies in Europe of a lessened interest in the continent. That means growing trouble for Europe and likely a deeper split across the Atlantic – exactly what Russia and Putin for years have been aiming for.”
For Greece, Mitchell’s pending departure in especially significant. He led the US side of the Strategic Dialogue this past December, so the question of follow-up on that front is suddenly up in the air. He played an active role in encouraging the passage of the Prespes agreement and a stronger relationship between Athens and Skopje that was set to emanate from it, so the follow-up to the agreement’s passage and any US role in its implementation is suddenly in question. Mitchell was steadfast in claiming that there was no scenario in which Turkey could get both Russian S400s and American F35s, a combination that would make Ankara bolder in its aggression in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. This issue will come to a head later this year, and there is no certainty whether anyone left in the administration is as steadfast as Mitchell on this issue. Mitchell was quite aggressive on the bilateral front with the Republic of Cyprus, giving unprecedented attention to establishing the security relationship with Cyprus – including loosening and eventually fully removing the arms embargo on Cyprus. Finally, he had been leading the administration’s efforts in reformulating a strategy on the Eastern Mediterranean. A senior State Department official told me that this isn’t a strategy that will be formally unveiled, so we can’t know exactly what effect Mitchell’s departure will have. But it will be interesting to note whether the administration will continue Mitchell’s obvious efforts to make Greece more central to US policy in the region.
If Mitchell’s departure is indeed Russia-related and part of an attempt by President Trump to remove any hardliners on Russia, there is a further question for Greece and Cyprus. Both Athens and Nicosia – but especially Alexis Tsipras’s government – have taken bold and unexpected moves that could be characterized as siding with the US over Russia. Part of Western praise over the Prespes agreement is motivated by the feeling in Washington that “the Balkans are back, and Russia is back in the Balkans.” Mitchell’s departure is significant enough, but if it signals a change in US policy orientation toward Greece, it becomes unclear to what extent Athens’s bold moves on this front would be appreciated in Washington.
At a European Deputy Chiefs of Mission breakfast this week, a senior European diplomat noted that Mitchell’s resignation was a negative development. No one demurred. US policy on Europe is up in the air, with significant implications for Greece and Cyprus.
Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.