US-Hungarian Relations under Orbán Governments: U-turn in American Diplomacy

EPP via flickr || CC

Recently, there have occurred several events which have been a qualitative leap in the relationship between Hungary and the United States. As a consequence, the formerly critically acclaimed foreign policy of the former was abandoned. The turning point took place between the years 2017 and 2018.

This is why it is crucial to understand the quality and evolution of Hungarian-American relations under the Orbán governments, which have been in office since 2010, as well as the main defining events in the relationship between the Hungarian and American governments.

The Story of a Conflictual Relationship

US-Hungarian diplomatic relations have been tensing since 2010, which, except for one year, could not be relieved or substantially improved neither by the alternating US ambassadors nor the Orbán governments.

It is also telltale that Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, Ambassador of United States to Hungary between 2010 and 2013, did not fulfilled her mandate, and after that, for about a year and a half since her departure, Mark André Goodfriend was at the top of the diplomacy relations as interim secretary.

Colleen Bell, who succeeded him, did not complete her mandate either, though the reason for her premature resignation is that the Democrats have lost the presidential election.

However, in the case of all three, their relationship with the Hungarian governments during their term of office is by no means called conflict-free.

Problematic Developments

Almost immediately after Fidesz’s two-thirds election victory, concerns about the state of Hungarian democracy, constitutionality, and the rule of law were raised by the American side. Future conflicts were projected by the Obama administration, through its Foreign Minister Hillary Clinton and Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, Ambassador to Hungary, who repeatedly voiced concerns that Fidesz led by Orbán Viktor won over the elections, which could mean excluding the opposition parties.

The situation in Hungary was put on the agenda of the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia in July 2011, when Thomas Melia, the Deputy Secretary of State of the US Department of State, expressed concern over the issues mentioned above.

However, the government has repeatedly rejected or ignored criticisms, requests for amendments and proposals from the US, and has not made any changes to the relevant parts of the Fundamental Law. From this time on, the rule of law and constitutional status were constantly at the forefront of diplomatic relations.

The existing disagreements and tensions are well illustrated by Kounalakis herself, in an interview in June 2013, who described this period as the bottom of her tenure and later wrote a book about her experience as an ambassador, which was not free of criticism.

In her book, she referred to one of the most serious problems as the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary (partly referring to the domestic rise of the radical right-wing Jobbik).

Strained Relations

Already in June 2012, about 50 members of the US Congress wrote a letter to the Hungarian government urgently to resolve the situation, calling for stronger government action on the issue.

Although the American side has constantly talked about the friendly relations, the tension between the two parties and the lack of progress in the aforementioned areas may have played a major role in the ambassador’s early departure in July 2013.

The alienation of American-Hungarian diplomatic and political relations is also shown by the fact that for a year and a half there was not political appointment at the head of the American-Hungarian diplomacy.

Relations under Mark André Goodfriend, acting as interim commissioner, deteriorated further and even reached diplomatic lows during his term in office. Name and person intertwined in October 2014 banning scandal. In this case, the United States has banned unnamed Hungarian civil servants from entering the United States because of their involvement in alleged corruption transactions.

An interesting fact of this scandal was that the head of NAV (National Tax and Customs Administration), Ildikó Vida, was on the ban list as well. As a culmination of this, Vida has filed a suit against an “unnamed person” for defamation, which was obviously directed against the Deputy Chief of Mission.

The Prime Minister himself declared about the affair, stating that we are entering a new era because the United States has not simply intervened, but has been an active participant in the internal politics of Central European countries and has mentioned the accusations of corruption as a secret service method.

In addition, at the request of the Prosecution Service of Hungary, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó wrote to the US Department of State requesting that Goodfriend’s diplomatic immunity be lifted so that the investigation could be conducted. Fortunately, that didn’t happen eventually, but Goodfriend soon left his position.

As can be seen, the new, “fully-fledged” politically appointed American ambassador to Budapest, Colleen Bell, was faced with an extremely difficult, post-conflict period. After taking office, she tried to normalize diplomatic relations, but her goal was only partially achieved.

Although earlier tensions eased during Bell’s ambassador, there were still strong criticisms of the Orbán government and its activities from the American side.

It soon became clear that there would be no significant improvement in the relationship between the two parties, which was made clear by the Ambassador in her speech at the Corvinus University of Budapest in October 2015.

She strongly criticized, among others, the previous constitutional amendments (Constitutional Court, media law), the acquisition and closure of opposition organs by government-affiliated interest groups (People’s Freedom), the lack of humanitarian policy and the increase in xenophobia. She also expressed concerns about the growing Russian influence in the economic sector (Paks Nuclear Power Plant).

Changes But No Improvement 

Thus, as we can see, American diplomacy has consistently kept the issues that have existed since 2010 and identified as problematic at the center of its criticism.

Although the above criticisms clearly include American economic interests (the Americans also applied for the construction of Unit 2 of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant and wanted also to reach that some part of the Russian gas import replaced by the American LNG gas), US pursued a foreign policy with our country in mind of the criteria of liberal constitutionality, but due to the reluctance of the Hungarian side, diplomatic relations remained tense throughout the period under review.

Despite expectations, even after the election of Donald Trump as president, relations have not improved significantly.

Even though the Hungarian Prime Minister has from the outset supported Trump’s election and as the first of the European Union’s prime ministers congratulated him on his victory.

Therefore, on the Hungarian side, there was a strong expectation that a meeting between the two leading politicians could take place soon.

However, this has not happened for a long time. David Cornstein, the new ambassador to Budapest in June 2018, is a person of Hungarian descent on his mother’s side, which also gave rise to some hope.

Moreover, the Hungarian government’s measures against CEU (Central European University) and related elements of uncertainty, falsehoods continued to burden the two sides’ connection. The university was founded and supported financially by George Soros, who had been attacked for years by the government’s poster campaign.

Cornstein’s first trip after taking office led to the CEU, thus openly advocating for the university to remain, and for a long time, made his top priority that the Hungarian government must make concessions in this regard. In addition, on the American side, both the Republican Party and the US Congress have emphasized that the university should stay in Budapest.

It seemed that as in previous years there would be no significant change in diplomatic relations.

On the American side, however, the former militant rhetoric was suddenly reduced, and relations reorganized on a new basis. In 2017, former Deputy Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland appointed by former Democrats, was replaced by Wess Mitchell, who took a radical turn in the predecessor’s strategy with the Hungarian government.

Mitchell stated that the US’s rhetoric of the rule of law and democratic values of previous years had been completely ineffective, so that relations had to be reorganized on a different basis, playing down the former criticisms. His justification was later confirmed by the words of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Hungary.

In this sense, the United States wants to strengthen and improve its position in order to roll back strong Russian and Chinese influence. The US had to recognize that if it wanted to keep the region in the US sphere of interest, it needed to change its strategy unlike in previous years.

The geopolitical changes of recent years have brought to its topicality, primarily Russia’s threatening military movements in eastern Ukraine and China’s Belt and Road Initiative economic program, which has been joined by 11 Central European countries, including Hungary. The initiative is seen by Americans as an instrument of Chinese influence and expansion on a global scale, not to mention the risk of indebtedness to China.

Thus, as we can see, US political rhetoric and the re-positioning of relations were driven primarily by changes at the international level. As a result, criticisms of the rule of law and constitutional issues throughout the Democratic Presidencies have been pushed into the background, thus replacing the former mainly value-based foreign policy approach with a highly interest-based diplomatic relationship with the US.

The CEU Case and Other Stories

One of the most spectacular signs of this was the constantly weakening American action at CEU, and the lack of criticism that eventually led the deeply disappointed government, and Cornstein himself, to accept that the university’s US diploma department, and its subsidiary institution must leave Hungary.

Cornstein’s earlier statement, which outlined a number of alternatives (including cooperation in the defense sector) as means for compensating the American side, had already projected a later practical application of this principle.

The region’s strategical appreciation was confirmed by the event of personal meeting of Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump (the later but not sooner meeting occurred in May of 2019) by American invitation to the White House. By the way, the last visit, that the Hungarian Prime Minister in office had taken in the Oval Office was in 2005.

The meeting did not address issues that had previously weighed on the relationship between the two sides, it focused on economic cooperation and on promoting US international political aspirations. Of course, the position and the rhetoric of the two sides on immigration issues are also very similar.

In the occurrence of the meeting it also played a part that the US Secretary of State’s visited Hungary in February 2019 to agree on the signing of a treaty on defense cooperation between the two countries (officially declared in April), which has been under strong US pressure for years and allows US armed forces to travel across the country and only US courts have the right to prosecute American soldiers who commit crimes in Hungary.

At the same time, the Hungarian government also increased the number of Hungarian soldiers on foreign NATO missions. Since then, the Hungarian government has met another condition for normalization and upgrading of relations by negotiating the purchase of rocket weapons exchange for about half a billion dollars and the possibility of Hungary replacing its current combat aircraft with US combat aircraft in the near future.

This way Orbán will kill two birds with one stone, as this way he moves closer to achieve 2% of defense spending as NATO expects and that is strongly emphasized by Trump, and the US army industry also benefits from the acquisition, which also fits Trump’s political expectations.

Thus, as we see the tense, conflict-ridden foreign policy relationship of the Obama era over the past year, determined by American criticism, the United States, in a much more affectionate manner, replaces the former value-based approach with its geostrategic objectives and its principle has come. So that this turn led to several steps on the part of the Hungarian side, in favor of American foreign policy interests, as discussed above.

Closing Remarks

It should be noted, however, that there are current issues that are straining the relationship between the two sides, one of the greatest weak points of the agreement is blocking Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the EU.

Although the current presidential administration has temporarily set aside its former reservations about the Hungarian government, it has not completely disappeared, as is illustrated by the fact that several Hungarian opposition leaders visited the US State Department at the same time as the Hungarian Prime Minister.

It is also clear that from the American side, especially the Democrats continue to have a strong aversion to the current Hungarian government and maintain their criticisms. The most obvious sign of this is that several Democratic politicians and foreign affairs officials would submit a proposal for the distribution of more than USD 700 million to support opposition media in Central and Eastern Europe.

One of the most important elements of this program would be the re-establishment of the Free Europe Radio in Hungary. Especially as the US presidential elections draw near and Democrats are now in the majority in House of Representatives this is a strong warning to Orbán: the relationship now looking to be fruitful may not be long-lived.

Balint Toth-Kaszas
Republikon Institute