Still Room for Budapest? Questioning How Hungary Fits in America’s Tent

By Dayan Reynolds

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest in 2021.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

As America begins to reckon with its interventionist history and redefine its role on the world stage, now is a good time to question alliances with demagogues and dictators.

American policy towards potential allies during the Cold War focused on keeping a “big tent.” Despite the fall of the Soviet Union and a shift in foreign policy to human rights promotion, Washington has held onto many of those more questionable allies. 

A full list of partners would include many Middle Eastern autocrats, wanna-be Latin American dictators, and corrupt regimes the world over. Amid recent trends in Eastern Europe, this now also includes several questionable “illiberal democracy” regimes. 

More than any other state in the region, the American partnership with Hungary, both directly and through organizations like NATO, deserves special attention.

The relationship extends back decades, beginning in the twilight of the Cold War when Budapest received millions in American aid. At the time, the goal was the eventual democratization and liberalization of the Hungarian government and economy. 

Today, more than a decade into the Orbán presidency, Budapest’s leadership instead flirts with authoritarianism and alliances with Russia and China. While the Biden administration has responded in kind with diplomatic “snubs,” is there more that should be done?

Orbán’s intention to move away from Washington and Brussels alike has been clear since the first months of his return to office as prime minister in May 2010. His announcement in September 2010 that “we are sailing under a Western flag, though an Eastern wind is blowing in the world economy,” was an early warning of what was to come from this new Hungary (even if, in the years since, the “Eastern Opening” policy has proven woefully ineffective).

Repeated efforts since then have only solidified Orbán’s commitment to look east. In 2017, Hungary became the first EU country to sign onto China’s Belt and Road. More recently, the country was the first in the EU to approve use of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, a decision that flies in the face of Western concerns over aggressive Russian and Chinese “vaccine diplomacy”.

Policies antagonizing the West are just as problematic as Orbán’s opportunism. He has pushed Budapest in an increasingly authoritarian and anti-human rights direction. This includes targeting of refugees and minorities, suppression of oppositional media, a rewrite of the constitution to give the presidency more power, and a culling of political checks on the executive.

Orbán isn’t alone in this approach. Janša and his SDS party in Slovenia, Duda’s P&S party in Poland, alt-right Vox in Spain and AfD in Germany all take a similar track, with some successful and others facing roadblocks in more established democracies. 

Still, Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party remain the most successful thus far, a crown Orbán is keen to wear with pride. Ahead of Slovenia’s 2018 election, the Hungarian leader stumped for SDS, which ultimately won the vote and later took power in 2020. At the EU level, Hungary and Poland have jointly protected their interests and fended off liberal challenges to their authority.

This is not to say Hungary has any plans to ditch the West entirely. If anything, Orbán has signaled an intention to play both sides. He has publicly refused to support some kind of “Hungar-exit” from the EU, and Hungarians themselves have more faith in the EU (53%) than across the organization as a whole. Hungary has also promised to bring its NATO funding in line with the 2% minimum by 2023, amidst heavy criticism of other member states during the Trump administration.

Nonetheless, this decision to have a foot in both camps is problematic for the future of American diplomacy. As Washington looks to reassess its foreign ties, from Manila to Brasília and everywhere between, it needs to consider doing the same in the West’s own backyard. 

When it comes to redefining the country’s footprint on the world stage, America has to ask itself if dictatorial allies with complicated ties to strategic enemies will seriously honor American interests. Even among the other illiberal parties in Eastern Europe, Orbán’s party’s friendliness with Beijing and Moscow sets it apart.

Orbán’s future in Hungary is not certain. Opposition parties there have announced a grand coalition effort to unseat the president in this year’s elections (perhaps taking a cue from recent political shifts in Israel against Netanyahu, a similarly dictatorial leader toppled by a left-right anti-Netanyahu coalition). 

In the same 2020 poll from Eurobarometer that showed a majority of Hungarians trust the EU, attitudes toward the government in Budapest were much less positive.

Even so, America should be watching Budapest closely this year. Whether or not Orbán falls from a majority’s good graces, his party and influence is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

At a time when political capital finally exists to redraw the foreign policy map of friends and foes, does there need to be room for eastern-facing illiberal democracies in Uncle Sam’s tent?

Dayan Reynolds is a Master’s student at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. He was born and raised in rural southwest Missouri. 

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