February 10, 2019

Message to Secretary of State Pompeo: We need Hungary as an ally. What if Orbán refuses to act like one?

Susan Corke, Transatlantic Democracy Working Group Secretariat

Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit to Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Brussels this week is an opportunity to shift relationships with European allies in a more mutually productive direction. America needs a strong, vibrant alliance and these NATO partners all have an important role to play. We also note to the Secretary and his team our concern about the danger to democracy in countries on his itinerary. We single out Hungary as a leading problem, and think it essential to ask: can NATO be strong if democracy is weak? 

The State Department took a principled stand last fall in seeking to protect an important American-Hungarian venture in Hungary, the Central European University (CEU). To no avail. The government of Viktor Orban has forced CEU’s exit and thumbed its nose at the United States. This has in part to do with the personal war Orban wages with his rival George Soros, and in part with Orban’s now legendary impatience with competition in the ideas space and political dissent. 

Perhaps Orban was merely testing the U.S. as he has been doing this for years now - with the Europeans, with the Obama administration, and now with the Trump administration. He has wanted to see what he could get away with as he vacillated between the U.S. and Russia. After his party was reelected, (in an election considered unfair in April 2018)  he clearly feels more emboldened, declaring that “the era of liberal democracy is over.” We should assume that Viktor Orban has a cohesive plan for the direction he is taking his country and that he may not care if we have closer relations. We care, however, about Hungary behaving like a strong, democratic ally and standing with us to protect NATO countries in a “competition for influence.

We understand our influence has limits. Yet to acknowledge this cannot mean we do nothing and simply look away as Hungary slides further into soft authoritarianism, and away from the United States.

While the government of Viktor Orban moves away from rule of law and pluralism, Budapest also seeks a curious definition of alliance, and a relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian kleptocrats which should cause alarm.

It should not be difficult to connect the dots: Orban's government continues to obstruct NATO cooperation with Ukraine. It recently allowed a father-son weapons-trafficking duo safe passage back to Russia. Budapest gave asylum to the fugitive former Macedonian prime minister. Apparently, Orban has an eye to 'becoming neutral, like Austria' -- while remaining in NATO. A recent Hungarian report (Direkt 36) based on leaked diplomatic cables suggests that the U.S. government is frustrated and rethinking its current gentler, engagement-seeking approach.  Brian H. Hook, a senior advisor to Pompeo, is correct to wonder that if “On the Hungarian side, there is no progress on priority issues…What can {we} say when {we} are asked about the results…?”

So what next?

The issue is not whether the U.S. engages with Hungary. Hungary is a member of NATO and the EU. What is needed, though, is that the United States have a clear-eyed approach regardless of strategy, tactics, and tone. We need democratic allies in Central and Eastern Europe — and a vision for the region. If Hungary is free to deepen its authoritarian and pro-Putin ways, the corrupting influence across Central and Eastern Europe will be considerable. American interests will be damaged.

We hope Secretary Pompeo will go to Europe with a clear-eyed vision. And to Budapest with a hard-nosed approach to getting a better deal for America and for our alliance as a whole.