US Ambassador Cornstein and His Failure to Save CEU in Budapest

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The United States Government is disappointed that the Hungarian government and CEU have not concluded an agreement that would allow the university to continue its US-accredited programs in Hungary,” goes the US State Department’s reaction to Hungary’s forced expulsion of Central European University from Budapest.

Is this the land of the free and the home of the brave? Or the home of the appeaser and of the incompetent?

The agreement was not concluded because the Hungarian government put it on its agenda more than a year ago that whatever happens, the country’s best university must go.

The reason is simple: George Soros. The university did everything to stay and complied with the new laws. Its leadership went out of its way to satisfy every wish of Hungary’s aspiring autocrat, Viktor Orban.

Throughout the process, the United States, which is supposed to protect its interests all around the world, just stood by as the Hungarian government chased away an American university from Hungary. And not just any university, but really the best one in the region.

In the summer, the US government sent to Hungary a good friend of President Trump as the new ambassador, David B. Cornstein. His self-proclaimed priority was to save CEU. He failed. Unfortunately, in the eyes of liberty-loving Hungarians, this is a failure of the United States and of America’s leadership.

Many of us were convinced that when it comes to protecting American interests, Trump will not compromise. But he simply did not care – or worse yet, he took Orban’s side in what he believed to be a disagreement with Soros, a figure vilified on the political right. He could not be more misguided in that assessment.

But at least, those Hungarians who believe in freedom more than the leader of the free world, know where things are. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet with Ambassador Cornstein in Budapest. I was sad and disappointed – sure, he was a successful businessman but he had no clue about diplomacy.

At the meeting, he sounded absolutely positive that CEU would stay and that a solution would be reached. He was naïve.

In fact, in the past weeks, he has not even been allowed to talk to the Hungarian Prime Minister. Jerry was playing with Tom and the little mouse came in winning.

Moreover, Mr Cornstein shoved away all criticism toward the Hungarian government by the opposition. He claimed that Hungary was a free country with free elections because there is opposition in the Parliament.

He also said that there is free press, because he can read criticism of Orban every day. He seems to have forgotten that Russia and Turkey have parliamentary opposition, too, and also that all county newspapers are firmly in the hands of Orban’s oligarchs.

There is one moment from the meeting with the US Ambassador that I will never forget. Mr Cornstein said that he represents the American government. As a result, his duty is to work together with the elected government of Hungary – not with the opposition. Is this ‘principled realism’ to constitute the new line of American foreign policy? Appeasement of dictators and autocrats?

I remember the time when US ambassadors to Hungary thought differently. I remember them willing to co-operate with the opposition to topple the communist regime.

At that time, the United States was led by Republican President George H.W. Bush, who died recently. Back then, American freedom and courage were not just cheap talk. Today, Bush is gone, CEU is out of Hungary, and so are the values of freedom in a country that once strongly believed in democracy.

However, I am still optimistic. How many times have I heard in my career that something is impossible. Three years ago, when I ran as an independent to break Orban’s two-third majority of the ruling party in Hungarian parliament, everybody said it was impossible. Nonetheless, I succeeded. And I truly believe that the tide can be turned in Hungary as well as in the United States. That day, liberal democracies will prevail around the world.

Zoltan Kesz
Free Market Foundation