Diplomatic relations between Hungary and the United States date back to the aftermath of World War I, when all states came to the conclusion that the globe is not a group of geographically isolated regions anymore, but a community. Consequently, all states affect one another, and mutually beneficial relations can only be established if they all cooperate.
Fast forward to today, Hungarian-American diplomatic relations are deteriorating and an obvious sign of that is the relationship between Prime Minister Orbán and David Pressman, US Ambassador to Hungary. It is unusual for such prominent political and diplomatic actors to express their dissatisfaction with one another publicly, but the critical remarks exchanged by Orbán and Pressman both in speeches and on social media prove that the issue is getting rather serious.
Hungarian government’s rhetoric towards the USA has changed vastly over the past year, with the prime minister taking a hostile stance against the United States (and its representative in Hungary, the ambassador). Pressman has voiced his concerns about the current nature of the bilateral relations with the Hungary, its government’s reluctance to loosen its ties with Russia, its homophobic attitude and a number of other issues.
How and why did the Hungarian government’s rhetoric become hostile when talking about one of the most powerful states in the world? What does the feud between Orbán and Pressman signal? What could be the possible motives and future consequences?
Changes in Hungarian Government’s Rhetoric towards the US with Biden’s Presidency
Some might argue that the Trump administration brought a period of cooperation and diplomatic equilibrium to the bilateral relations of the US and Hungary, which changed as Biden stepped into office. However, the Trump presidency created a false sense of balance regarding the diplomatic relations of two states, as it was mostly based on two leaders sharing similar values and supporting each other (in election campaigns, foreign policy decisions, etc.).
Bilateral relation between two states should have a stronger basis than merely the similarities between the leaders. This was proven when Trump lost the 2016 election and Biden took his place as president. Biden administration was much more critical of Orbán than its predecessor, which contributed to the weakening of US-Hungary reltions.
Trump’s presidency marked a shift in public opinion and voter preferences. In previous decades, liberalism was seen as the most ideal structure and set of values for society. However, with the passage of time and the emergence of new challenges (some of which were completely new phenomena, such as terrorism, global trade and its consequences, migration, etc.), people began to blame liberalism and lose faith in it, and as a result turned to conservative ideas.
In the US this process resulted in the election of Trump, who used conservative and nationalist slogans and ideas. Orbán did something very similar in Hungary but in a very different geopolitical, economic, and social setting. On the other hand, Biden represents liberal values and the traditional promises of the Democrats: cooperation with other nations and global institutions, reducing inequalities, improving the social safety net and so on. Thus, Orbán made it clear at the beginning of the 2020 presidential race that he supports Trump and he prefers a Republican president.
The negative (sometimes even hostile) Hungarian rhetoric towards Biden and the US reached its peak with the breakout of the war in Ukraine. Orbán started to embrace the rhetoric that the US wants war. “If the United States said they want peace, it would happen by tomorrow morning,” he said in a radio interview. He has been trying to create a narrative that Ukraine is just a puppet of the US government and the American support is prolonging the war.
Last year, during a public discussion in Berlin, Orbán argued that due to Biden’s previous statements claiming that Putin is a mass murderer and a war criminal, making peace with Russia had become much more difficult. He claimed that peace can only be reached with Trump. He has not been holding back ever since: in his recent address to parliament, Orbán listed “American democrats” amongst “Hungary’s enemies”, sparking international outrage.
Feud Between Orbán and Pressman
David Pressman’s 2022 appointment as Ambassador to Hungary received a great deal of attention. It was an interesting development, not only because it marked a new chapter in the diplomatic relations between the two countries, but also because Pressman previously worked at the United Nations, as a lawyer he deals mainly with human rights and is openly gay with a husband and twin sons.
Some interpreted his appointment as ambassador to Hungary as somewhat symbolic, given that Orbán’s government has been a notoriously problematic member of international organizations, passed a number of laws restricting human rights, and taken serious measures (both legislative and non-legislative) against the LGBTQI+ community and their rights in Hungary.
Pressman first expressed his concerns about Hungary’s current political state in his statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the hearing at which his nomination as ambassador was confirmed. He claimed that the Orbán government’s reluctance to support EU efforts to sanction Putin and “the obvious influence of Russia and China in Hungary – and on its government,” are highly concerning. He continued by highlighting the fact that democratic values are weakening in Hungary and that requires immediate attention.
The first one to hit a negative tone towards the ambassador was Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó. In his speech (before Pressman even arrived in Hungary), he claimed that the ambassador should not get involved in Hungarian domestic affairs. He later criticized the ambassador for commenting on his trip to Moscow.
One of the first public exchange of messages happened when Pressman responded to Orbán looking for “his good friend” Trump on Twitter (whose account was permanently suspended “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” following the attack of the Capitol). Pressman suggested that Orbán followed the current US President instead of his twice impeached predecessor. “But as the Hungarian media might say: no pressure. #nyomasgyakorlo” he added.
Arguably, the most infamous statement took place in early 2023 when Orbán claimed that “President Biden sent a pressure man (‘présember’ in the original statement, which is a wordplay on the Hungarian word ‘prés’, a device which exerts force and puts pressure on things and the ambassador’s name) instead of a good friend…” (a reference to André Goodfriend, former US chargé d’affairs in the US Embassy) implying that Biden is trying to put pressure on the Hungarian government through Pressman. A subtle response came months later, when Pressman tweeted “No pressure, but I hope you have a happy birthday. #nyomasgyakorlo” for the prime minister’s birthday.
Pressman stated his concerns about the Hungarian government’s pro-Russian rhetoric in a number of his speeches. The Orbán government (in particular the prime minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs) gave very harsh responses every time, such as Szijjártó stating that
“it is completely irrelevant what he (Pressman) or any other ambassador thinks about domestic political developments in Hungary, because it has nothing to do with him.”
Following the release of the U.S. State Department’s annual report, the ambassador, and by extension his country, faced much criticism from the Orbán government for “having the courage to make such excoriating statements about the internal issues and situations of other countries (…) based on all kinds of one-sided reports. Where do they come up with this? How do they come to this?” For the latter question, Pressman tweeted a simple answer: “Facts. Evidence.” He also added that the Orbán government’s attitude of rejecting any negative feedback is very similar to that of the Kremlin, when faced with criticism.
How Does This Hostile Rhetoric Fit into Orbán’s Political Agenda and in What Way Does It Benefit Him?
A favorite and often used method of the Orbán government is to make one person the face of the entire idea it is campaigning against. The most prominent past example of this is connecting businessman György Soros to Brussels (representing EU decision-making) and migration. In the case of Pressman, Orbán tries to create a link between him (representing the US and “the West”) and negative values such as oppression, war, and sanctions. Obviously, most of these links are made up and their main purpose is to create a false narrative, a negative perception about the US in the public eye, validating Orbán’s hostile rhetoric.
But why is it worth it for Orbán to go to all this trouble just to create a widespread narrative that supports his rhetoric? A possible explanation can be found in Orbán’s populist tendencies. One of the main characteristics of populist leaders is that they claim to represent the will of “the people”.
Another common feature of populist rhetoric is oversimplifying and categorizing people, events, parties, and social processes into strict categories, instead of viewing them in their nuanced realities. Thus, creating a dichotomy between us (the people, the nation) and them (the perceived threat and enemy, whether it is a state, a politician, or a social process movement) helps convey a simplified message: we as a nation represent the morally good force, therefore anyone that does not agree with us must be in the wrong.
Creating a scapegoat and linking negative values to them is an easy way to set up a campaign against a person, a party, or even an entire nation. In this particular case, making Biden and the US look like supporters of the Russian-Ukrainian war allows Orbán to play the role of the heroic leader of the nation who – unlike the American president – only keeps one thing in mind when making decisions: the Hungarian people.
The same goes for Orbán’s infamous “présember” speech, in which he claimed that Pressman was sent to put pressure on the Hungarian government. Making Biden seem like he is trying to force the Hungarian government’s hand gives Orbán the opportunity to pose as the great leader who resists the pressure of “the West” and protects the national sovereignty (even though in reality Western powers are not threatening it).
It can be concluded that Orbán’s rhetoric towards Pressman is not surprising, considering his history of systematically damaging the reputation of those who are claimed as opponents of the government and his tendency of posing as a leader who protects his nation from all outside threats and guards national values carefully.
Potential Impact of the 2024 US Presidential Election on Bilateral Relations
Next year, on the first Tuesday in November, the 2024 U.S. presidential election will be held, and the outcome will affect not only the United States, but also all of its bilateral and multilateral diplomatic relations. But what significance does this have for Hungary? Among the Republican candidates competing to become the party’s presidential candidate and run against Joe Biden next year, former president Donald Trump seems to be the most popular. While this may come as a surprise, given his election defeat in 2021 and its aftermath, the criminal charges he faces, and his two impeachments, he still enjoys significant support, according to 270toWin polls.
Orbán has made it clear in a number of statements that he prefers a Republican administration, particularly one with Trump as president. He was the first (and nearly only) head of state in the European Union who openly endorsed Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In a recent interview with Tucker Carlson, Orbán made strong statements such as “Call back Trump! That is the only way out.” answering a question about his opinion on NATO and Biden’s leadership during the Ukrainian war, claiming that “the best foreign policy of the recent several decades belongs to him (Trump).” He even went so far as to say that if Trump had been the president at the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the war would have been avoided. In exchange, Trump posted a similarly supportive message on his social media: “Viktor Orbán is a great leader and man. The wonderful people of Hungary are lucky to have him!”
On the other hand, Orbán and the Biden administration had a number of critical exchanges. The Biden administration has two main issues with the Hungarian government: its reluctance to ratify the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO and its close relations with Russia. Orbán seems confident that it would be favourable for him if the 2024 election was won by Trump, and he might be right about that. While the current US government is highly critical and vocal about the democratic deficit detectable in Hungary, Trump has always been supportive of the conservative values preached by Orbán, to the extent that the Republican Party invited him to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an important annual assembly of conservative politicians and their supporters.
So, what is at stake for Hungary at the US presidential election? Its outcome could determine whether one of the world’s most powerful states remains critical of the Hungarian government. In case of a second term for Trump as president, it is likely that the US will cease to provide a counterweight for those actions of the Orbán government that could undermine democracy and rule of law in Hungary and the balance will be tipped off towards conservative values.
“(…) there is indeed a lot of ‘noise’ in the government-controlled media, and the question arises as to what this means for US-Hungarian relations. These are not attacks on me, but on the United States – and we consider them as such.” – this was Pressman’s response in an interview when asked about the continuous attacks of the media since his arrival to Hungary.
It can be concluded that this is not just a feud between two officials with differing views. As the above-mentioned quote suggests, this goes beyond the two people that are voicing the opinions, it reflects the bilateral relations of the two countries, which is certainly not in its prime. One thing is for sure, the result of the upcoming US presidential election will determine whether the diplomatic relation of the two countries stays on this downward slope or takes a turn and starts to improve. In the meantime, the rhetoric of the Orbán government and the ambassador towards each other could be a strong indicator of the current and upcoming state of the bilateral relations.