Clinton advisor: Hillary had a plan to ‘help support the European project’

Before joining Clinton's campaign, Julianne Smith was a senior advisor to US Vice President Joseph Biden. [CNAS]

EXCLUSIVE / Julianne Smith was the head of Hillary Clinton’s Europe team during last year’s presidential campaign. In an interview with, she said Hillary had a dedicated team and a detailed strategy for Europe ready to start from day one in the White House.

Donald Trump’s unexpected victory derailed plans to put Europe at the centre of US foreign policy. As Trump sees his first 100 days as president, Smith said things would have been “radically different” with the Democratic candidate in the White House.

Clinton was ready to help Europe because “there was a sense that Europe needed US support”, she told EURACTIV.

Julianne Smith is the director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Centre for a New American Security. She led presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s team on European affairs.

Smith spoke with Jorge Valero.

You were Clinton’s Europe team chief. Would you have moved to a similar role in the White House?

I do not know what I would have done. I know that I would have worked in the transition period. I was asked to come and work in the White House between the election and Christmas. I was managing a Europe team of around 50 policy advisors during the campaign with Mike McFaul [former US ambassador to Moscow].

One of the main criticisms of President Trump is not only his lack of strategy in many fields, including Europe, but also that he has not appointed people to senior posts to implement it. On the other hand, you seemed ready to work at full speed from day one.

Trump did not utilise the time during the transition period to help prepare for the presidency. As a result, it was extremely disorganised and very confusing for the people that were still in government looking to interact with their counterparts in Trump’s transition team.

You can tell that they didn’t expect to win, or they just did not care about the transition process. Clinton had hundreds of people advising her on foreign policy and Trump had dozens. So it was a very different organising principle for both teams.

How different would Clinton’s first hundred days have been compared to Trump’s in regards to Europe?

Radically different, because she would have a team in place and she would have run a very effective transition. We knew exactly what the strategy was. We had a vision for where we were going.

She would have done more foreign trips by now, I would assume. And she would be messaging what her strategy is. She would have probably given a major foreign policy address, which Trump still has never done. There would have been a full-on Russia review to determine where we go from here with them. We have seen none of that.

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What would have been your top priorities for this initial period in relation to Europe?

A trip to Europe, a vision on how to strengthen EU-US ties, a full-on Russia review that would have been conducted in cooperation with our European allies, and trying to see what more we could do to support Ukraine.

But what were Clinton’s main strategic goals for our region?

Broadly, there was a feeling that the European project was a bit in crisis. When you looked at Brexit [the UK’s decision to leave the EU], the counter-terrorism challenges, aggression from Russia, the rise of populist parties, loss of faith in international institutions like the EU, there was a sense that Europe needed US support.

The US is obviously not a member of the EU, but certainly, it had the ability to help support the European project. And continue to enhance EU-US ties, support NATO, push back against Russia’s aggression in central and eastern Europe, enhance deterrence against what the Russians are doing in particular in the Baltic states and to countries that are just east of NATO territory.

We also wanted to focus on the US-Turkey relationship, which is in a pretty dire state in recent years, particularly after the attempted coup against [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and the deep disagreements over whether or not we should extradite [Fethullah] Gulen.

There was a broad feeling among the team and Clinton herself that Washington would need to extend a hand and build on the partnership between Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, and have a closer relationship to many of the leaders in Europe and Brussels, and work with our European allies to strengthen our cooperation.

We have got pretty much the opposite so far. They don’t have the people they need to manage our relationship with Europe right now. There is a lot of unease right now about what the goals of the administration are, what their strategy is, how they feel about Europe, and how much they want to commit to the European project and the transatlantic relationship.

How could a Clinton government have supported Europe to counter the anti-EU feeling championed by populist parties, but also by some governments like Poland and Hungary?

We could work with the European partners to call out countries that are rolling back democratic reforms. There could be political statements that are made in tandem between Washington and Brussels to call out, for example, what [Viktor] Orbán did to the Central European University.

There could be visits by US officials to European capitals to show resolve and unity in the face of Russian aggression. We could pursue additional enhanced deterrent measures in central and eastern Europe.

We could talk about what comes after the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). It seems that TTIP will not go anywhere and there is going to be a rejection on both sides of the Atlantic. But thinking about what could be done in light of TTIP failing, could we scope a new trade agreement that would address some of the grievances people have?

There is more we could do in the area of intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation and aviation security. Also, there is more work to do on the stability of North Africa and the refugee crisis.

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It sounds as if Clinton was ready to bring the transatlantic bond back to the top of the priority list, in contrast to Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’.

She definitely believes in the ‘pivot to Asia’. She dedicated a lot of her time in office to that. She wouldn’t have rejected it. But she did feel that the US needed to be focusing more on the Atlantic, that it had not yet received all of the attention it deserved during the Obama Administration.

Did you contemplate additional support to Europe to manage the refugee crisis, for example by accepting more people coming from countries like Syria into the US?

Yes, she said that several times during the campaign. She thought that the US should be taking more refugees. Absolutely.

Besides his constant call on European states to increase military spending, what is Trump’s strategy for Europe? Does he have any?

No, I don’t think they know what they are doing. I don’t think they know why they are engaging or why Trump is going to the NATO summit [25 May]. I don’t think there is much of a plan.

Obviously, they want to push NATO allies’ defence spending. But beyond that, I don’t think they focus on the great issues. They should be looking at readiness; at reinforcement, the multinational battalions that are in the Baltic states. They should be thinking more about cyber, working more closely with the European allies.

But there is no plan, there is no vision, there is no strategy. We don’t know what they want to do with Russia. And with the EU, it does not seem to be of much interest whatsoever. It is worrisome.

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There were a lot of warnings from Trump directed towards Europe that did not materialise, for example with the Paris accord or trade deficits …

Right, it is a lot of bluster, and a lot of tweets and provocative statements. But we are still waiting to see what the actual policies look like. We haven’t seen a lot in the area of Europe and the transatlantic relationship.

Do you think it is going to translate into policies?

I have no idea. I ask myself that all the time. I really don’t know.

How do you see the discussion on the future of Europe from the other side of Atlantic?

Europe is going to have to focus more on a multi-speed Europe, and determine whether or not France and Germany want to bring a couple of initiatives forward with a smaller group just to advance the EU agenda. It has been very hard to do it at 28. I think it is time to do it. If Merkel wins the election, I think she is keen to do that.

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