Photo by Jason Lam
Cynics would say that it could be expected that the Prespa agreement would pass the moment when Wess Mitchell announced that he would be leaving the position of Assistant Secretary of State. It will be, at last, a concrete achievement and a nice way to “close one chapter”. Although – rightly – many rushed to explain Mitchell’s departure with the conflicts accompanying current administration, he himself insisted on family reasons for the “Washington Post”, as well as the letter addressed to Secretary Pompeo. The father of a boy and a girl, Mitchell spent most of the past 16 months on the road. When people leave, they tend to do it after half of their four-year mandate is spent (which few endure). In the meantime, he pointed out that he “did what he came for”: to help the transition, or the arrival of Pompeo (after Trump fired his predecessor, Rex Tillerson).
Mitchell did, however, much more. As a “dedicated Atlanticist”, he tried to calm United States allies’ fears. Part of his job was to control the damage Trump would cause with his tweets, that is, ensure the predictability where there is usually none. The announcement that the United States could reconsider NATO membership – one of the postulates of European security architecture built after the Second World War – he would explain with the need for the countries of Europe (and above all Germany) to take on their part of the burden-sharing defence funding represents. This is not a problem of yesterday; Obama administration simply chose to not insist on it so much. On the other hand, it remains an open question the extent to which he could bridge the gap that opened between Trump, Pompeo and the European Union; the speech by Secretary of State in December 2018 showed elemental ignorance of Brussels as a political center and the way it operates.
As a researcher and someone who is familiar with Central and Eastern Europe, Mitchell was first occupied with Russia (and China), that is, with how to resist their (growing) influence in new and future member states of the European Union. This, however, he did in an analytical way, acknowledging that these are, after all, competitive models of government and organisation of society. His answer (described in the book “The Unquiet Frontier” with Jakub Grygiel as co-author) was to integrate the entire space “from the Baltics to the Balkans” into NATO and was therefore dedicated to the regime of (targeted) sanctions, which is providing results; to mitigate the fears of new members in terms of Art. 5 and joint defence; mediating the resolution (by diplomatic pressure) of the Macedonian name dispute. That is why, at a moment when Orban completes concentration of power in Hungary, and practically expels the Central European University (CEU), he could (and perhaps also had to) call on Hungarian Foreign Minister to visit Washington for talks. According to Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council, he is also credited with the sale of weapons to Ukraine and Georgia through the cooperation of several US agencies. Wilson’s colleague from the NATO-supported organisation, Daniel Fried, added to the achievements and advocacy of the “Three Seas” (Baltic-Adriatic-Black Sea) initiative, understood as another forum for security cooperation and exchange, complementary to NATO and EU (although it is not clear how; or, how much is Germany interested in it).
The successor to Mitchell (in the meantime, Elizabeth Millard, a career diplomat, will be acting Assistant) inherits, therefore, a difficult “portfolio”. He or she will continue to “interpret” Trump to Europe, and thus preserve the transatlantic link. This means he or she will have to overcome differences in access to specific issues, such as the trade regime, or Iran. Also Turkey, which, after the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, and especially after the unsuccessful coup, has dramatically drifted away from the US, and has made the American approach and politics in the Middle East more difficult.
Finally, there is the question what Mitchell’s departure means for “us” in the Western Balkans. The following problem arises: from Pompeo to (Matthew) Palmer, no US diplomat of higher (highest) rank will be taking over South East Europe portfolio, while the upcoming period many view as decisive in terms of closing the name dispute (and securing sustainability of Macedonia as an independent state, of which NATO membership is the only real guarantee) and the possibility of achieving a “comprehensive”, “historic” or any kind of agreement between Belgrade and Pristina. When it comes to the latter, which is of more interest to us, it would not be unusual for – as was the case in Kissinger’s time, for example – to see National Security Council becoming actively involved. Of all US officials, John Bolton was loudest in calling for the issue to come to an end; his refusal to dismiss border changes set the tone. There is always another option, well-known and tried in the Western Balkans: the appointment of an envoy, who would, together with his EU colleague, “provide support” in further course of negotiations. And if all of them fail, there is still the idea of convening an international conference, which was now, in an interesting manoeuvre and attempt to break out of the “tariffs” regime, mentioned by Haradinaj himself.
We conclude the following: the US administration has changed its attitude towards Serbia; for a number of reasons, it is ready to hear the arguments of Belgrade; this unique “window” will last for a limited amount of time, and might close depending on the internal problems US president faces at home. There is need for more clarity and transparency, if it is already not too late; citizens in Serbia and Kosovo, it seems, have long been turned against such an agreement.
First published in Novi magazin No. 405, 31 December 2019