WASHINGTON — Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell, who’d been charged with guiding US policy toward central Europe, resigned from his position Jan. 4 — but diplomats from the countries under his purview only learned about it Tuesday, when the resignation became news in Washington.
Mitchell’s last day is to be Feb. 15. But diplomats from a variety of countries told BuzzFeed News that they only learned the news after the Washington Post reported the resignation Tuesday.
“It came as a big surprise,” one Eastern European diplomat told BuzzFeed News. Other diplomats from elsewhere in Europe said they, too, hadn’t been told of his resignation and found out that the person running policy toward their countries was on the way out only from the news report.
Mitchell joined the State Department in October 2017 from the Center for European Policy Analysis, or CEPA, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington focused on Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. He had been at the center since 2006, but until the Senate confirmed his appointment, had never served as a US diplomat. He also served on advisory boards on institutes in Europe and received his doctorate in political science from the Free University of Berlin. His career had been devoted to Europe, and especially to Central Europe.
Mitchell’s tenure, which began under then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson, was marked by a push to engage those parts of Europe — specifically, Central Europe, with its rising illiberalism — that the Obama administration had made a point of ignoring over human rights differences. Mitchell was widely credited with arranging for the Hungarian foreign minister to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton — the kind of high-level meeting that had not happened during the later days of the Obama administration because of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s human rights record.
Mitchell thought such a meeting — and open lines of communication with Hungary — was essential to countering Russia and China in Central and Eastern Europe.
Some doubted the effectiveness of that strategy. If the point was to stop Hungary from breaking ranks with the European Union over Russia, that didn’t work. Hungary feuded with Ukraine over minority language laws, and in October of last year, both countries expelled each other’s diplomats.
If the point was to stop Hungary from pushing conspiracy theories that undermine the western order, that didn’t work, either; the Orbán government pushed out Central European University, the institution founded by Hungarian American billionaire and Orbán foe George Soros, despite Mitchell requesting that it be allowed to stay.
Nevertheless, Mitchell, in his resignation letter, said that he felt his mission had been accomplished. “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,” he wrote, adding that he was leaving to spend time with his young family.
Diplomats are already worried about who would take his place.
“He was an anchor of Euro-Atlanticism, and one of the key figures to ensure that this administration’s policy towards Russia won’t be weak,” the Eastern European diplomat told BuzzFeed News. “It is not a good sign for those who want to see a united and strong front by the west towards aggressive behavior from [the] Kremlin.”
“We will see who will come after him, but more than likely his replacement will be chosen based on the level of loyalty, rather than competence,” another European diplomat told BuzzFeed News.
“With people like Wess leaving, we will be seeing less and less people in the administration who would be able to actively participate in the formation of this country’s foreign policy.”
Mitchell, the diplomat said, knew Europe. “He loved it and cherished our partnership. He understood the importance of this partnership for the US. Whoever will replace him, I am afraid that the transatlantic relationship won’t be better off.”
On Twitter, Pompeo offered, “Wess has done an outstanding job as Assistant Secretary. I have valued his counsel and wisdom as he has led our European team in this administration. I wish him and his wife Elizabeth, who is also a committed public servant, much happiness with their two young children.”
He also, according to the State Department, had a phone call with Orbán to discuss the importance of the US–Hungarian strategic relationship, a sign that, while Mitchell’s commitment may be irreplaceable, his approach may not leave the building with him.