Do America and Europe have as strong a relationship as we think?

Do America and Europe have as strong a relationship as we think?
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In the wake of the state visit to Washington of French President Emmanuel Macron and the upcoming meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump, an already rocky relationship between the United States and Europe faces serious challenges in the months ahead. May 12 is the deadline for a Trump administration threat to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement, despite European objections, and there are ongoing transatlantic differences over steel tariffs and how to deal with Russia, Iran and North Korea.

In the past, U.S.-European relations have weathered strains thanks, in part, to the moderating influence of influential thought leaders on either side of the Atlantic. However, a new survey of 373 foreign policy, national security and economic experts by Pew Research Center, in association with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, suggests that this transatlantic community may be unable to unite as effectively as in the past, owing to severe doubts about the current U.S. administration and differences over how to respond to Russia and the spread of fake news.

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A year ago, when Pew Research Center polled the same transatlantic policy community, at least six in 10 experts anticipated that economic, national security and diplomatic relations between the United States and Europe would worsen with the advent of the Trump administration. This year, a similar share agree that economic and national security relations have worsened in the last year, while even more believe that diplomatic relations have suffered. About nine in 10 American experts surveyed think transatlantic diplomacy has become more strained and difficult in the past year, while eight in 10 European experts say the same.

Such concerns are partly a reflection of how far both confidence in the U.S. president and America’s image have fallen among Europeans. But the worries are also a reaction to U.S. policy. Eight in 10 transatlantic policy experts believe that Washington’s planned move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv will make it harder to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. About two-thirds say the Trump administration’s approach to Iran has been bad for stability in the region. Roughly six in 10 believe Washington’s dealings with Pyongyang has made an agreement regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program less likely. (The survey was conducted before President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE announced his intention to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this spring.)

Redirecting Trump administration policies that transatlantic thought leaders agree are off course may be a daunting prospect in its own right. Adding to the challenge is the fact that policy experts in the United States and Europe diverge on two key issues: Russia and the spread of fake news. In the case of the former, 92 percent American policy experts surveyed judge that Trump has not been tough enough with Russia. Their European counterparts are less harsh in their assessment, as just 61 percent say Trump has not been firm enough on Russia, while a quarter say his handling of Russia has been about right.

Americans and Europeans within the transatlantic community also differ somewhat on what to do about the spread of fake news. A majority of European thought leaders at 55 percent say social media networks should be regulated to address the spread of false information, even if it might limit free speech. American experts disagree, with 53 percent of them say free speech online should be protected, even if it means there might be false information shared on social media.

Among those who believe social media networks should be regulated, 61 percent of European experts think government should hold the primary responsibility for policing such networks, while 36 percent say private companies such as Google, Twitter or Facebook should do the regulating. American thought leaders are divided, as 49 percent see government should oversee social media networks, while 47 percent think it should be done by private companies.

If American and European policies prove too divergent to bridge, what might the future of transatlantic relations look like? It’s difficult to say, but attitudes toward Britain’s anticipated exit from the European Union suggest that American elites value close ties with the United Kingdom more than their European counterparts. Among U.S. foreign policy, national security and economic experts, clear majorities want military, economic and trade, and political ties between the United States and Britain to be very close in the wake of Brexit.

This contrasts with less enthusiastic support among European experts, including British thought leaders, for continued European Union ties with the United Kingdom. While 60 percent of European thought leaders back very close military cooperation between Brussels and London, less than half want the European Union to sustain very close economic and trade or political ties with Britain after Brexit.

If there is a center of gravity that the transatlantic community might rally around on Brexit, Russia or other matters, it would seem to be located in Berlin or Paris. Among policy experts in both the United States and Europe, there is high confidence in Merkel and Macron to do the right thing when it comes to world affairs. By comparison, views of British Prime Minister Theresa May are divided, with 66 percent of American experts expressing confidence in her leadership, versus only 29 percent of European thought leaders. Meanwhile, confidence in Trump is low, with just 6 percent of American experts and 12 percent of European experts trusting the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs.

Ties between United States and Europe have faced turbulent times before, and thought leaders on both shores have often been instrumental in helping to bridge differences. Deep pessimism, divergent views on key policies, and shifting views of international leadership, however, may hamper the ability of foreign policy, national security and economic experts in the United States and Europe to reprise their roles as stewards of the transatlantic relationship. The months ahead will reveal whether the policy community is up to the test.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center, where he assesses public views. He is also a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund and an associate fellow at Chatham House.