President Donald Trump announced on July 19 his intent to nominate Wess Mitchell as Assistant Secretary of State, European and Eurasian Affairs.
Mitchell heads a think tank on Central and Eastern Europe. He founded the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in 2005 and has been its president and CEO since 2009. The nominee serves on numerous policy boards in the United States and Europe. From 2013 to 2016, he chaired the neoconservative Europe Working Group for the John Hay Initiative.
Mitchell is the co-author of two books on geopolitics, including Unquiet Frontier: Vulnerable Allies, Rising Rivals and the Crisis of American Power. This book is often cited by National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster. The authors write that from the Baltic to the South China Sea, newly assertive authoritarian states sense an opportunity to resurrect old empires or build new ones at America's expense. Hoping that US decline is real, nations such as Russia, Iran, and China are testing Washington's resolve by targeting vulnerable allies at the frontiers of American power. The Unquiet Frontier explains why the United States needs a new grand strategy that uses strong frontier alliance networks.
Mitchell’s third book will be published in the spring of 2018. He is also the author of numerous scholarly articles, policy reports and analytical briefs, and is a frequent commentator on NATO and transatlantic security at international security conferences.
During the 2012 US Presidential election, Mitchell served on the National Security Transition Team for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. He never held any government positions.
Wess Mitchell earned a B.A. from Texas Tech University, a M.A. from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and recently completed his Ph.D. at Freie Universität in Berlin, Germany. He speaks German and has studied Dutch and Czech. Mitchell lives in Virginia with his wife and two children.
Known for his tough stance on Russia, which he called a revisionist country, the nominee is expected to be easily confirmed by Senate. «While the post-Cold War West may have hoped that Russia might eventually become a supersized version of Poland,» Mitchell wrote about Russia, «with liberal institutions and a de-militarized foreign policy, what we got instead was a latter-day version of Carthage — a sullen, punitive power determined to wage a vengeful foreign policy to overturn the system that it blames for the loss of its former greatness». So, another hawk is nominated by the administration that promised to improve the relations with Moscow.
Mitchell is to join the team of other top officials who advocate the «get tough on Russia» policy, like National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Fiona Hill, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on the National Security Council. But none of these people enjoys wielding decisive influence on the President as the Putin-Trump meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg showed. So, it’s unlikely that Wess Mitchell will enjoy the same level of influence that Victoria Nuland, his predecessor, had with ex-President Obama.
Tillerson is believed to be the most undercut Secretary of State since William Rogers way back in the Nixon administration as the foreign policy decision-making power is shifting away from the State Department to a group of advisers, the National Security Council and the Defense Department. Then why should the Assistant Secretary be influential enough to shape the policy on Europe in general and Russia in particular?
True, but nothing as black and white. Mitchell will be able to become the chief architect of the Russia policy if President Trump endorses the new proposals Rex Tillerson has put forward. The State Secretary has crafted a three-point framework for future US-Russia relations. The paper – a classified document that hasn't previously been revealed – takes a narrow view of what can be achieved, but seeks a constructive working relationship with Moscow on a limited set of issues. The document has been reported to win approval at a meeting of White House cabinet officials including Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
According to media reports, the framework emphasizes the importance of «strategic stability» with Russia. It offers to engage Russia on issues that are of strategic interest to the United States, including the long-running civil war in Syria, North Korea's rapidly developing nuclear weapons program, and cybersecurity and cyberespionage. Tillerson is also seeking better coordination with Russia in Syria against the Islamic State.
The State Secretary has tapped his Deputy, Tom Shannon, the State Department’s number three official, to help get US-Russia relations back on track. Mitchell, a vocal Putin critic, may join the effort while implementing Tillerson’s framework if the document gets the president’s approval. Russia hawks can be pragmatic in their efforts to accomplish the missions assigned.
These are the possible scenarios. Nothing can be said with some degree of certitude as the US foreign policy is unpredictable at best. Some say it’s a mess.
The US foreign policy is in flux with many key positions still vacant. It’s a good thing that the State Department’s position of importance for Russia-US dialogue will be filled at last. But it will take time for Mitchell to sail through Senate and then learn the ropes. It remains to be seen who will be nominated for the position of deputy assistant secretary for Russia at the Defense Department and the US special envoy for Ukraine. Until then, the only thing to do is to adopt the wait and see approach while watching closely what’s happening in Washington.