If a snapshot of today’s dialogue between Hungary and the United States says anything about the relationship between these two countries, it’s that things are not on the right track. The current squabbling only benefits Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Budapest’s previous stalling of Sweden’s ascension to NATO over past comments about “democratic backsliding,” and the resulting delay of U.S. arms sales to Hungary, demonstrate the dangers of bad public dialogue. While Budapest is now poised to support Sweden’s membership, trouble between the United States and Hungary persists.
The most recent example is U.S. ambassador David Pressman chiding Prime Minister Viktor Orban for hosting the Conservative Political Action Committee’s (CPAC) second annual Budapest-based event, during which Orban himself was one of the keynote speakers. Pressman denounced the forum’s focus on a “fake culture war,” calling on Hungary to focus instead on the Russian conflict with Ukraine next door.
In Orban’s most recent state of the nation address in February, the prime minister made a play on words out of Ambassador Pressman’s name, calling him a “press man,” meaning someone who uses his liberal-leaning media allies to enforce Washington’s will on Hungary. The Hungarian press made similar characterizations of the American diplomat, calling his initiatives “clown diplomacy,” with some portraying him as an intrusive “colonial overlord.”
Even when Budapest and Washington align in policy, the dialogue is laced with a nasty tone.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations have lobbied for Hungary to exit the Russian-run International Investment Bank due to fears of it operating as a front for Russian intelligence services. Budapest did so after Washington levied sanctions against the bank in April, sending the institute packing back to Moscow. While welcoming Budapest’s (“albeit late”) decision, Pressman bemoaned that it was “unfortunate that... it required this level of engagement from the United States in order for there to be responsiveness.” Budapest, in turn, lamented that “although the International Investment Bank has played an important development role in Central and Eastern Europe, the U.S. sanctions have rendered the Bank’s operations meaningless.”
This tone is one that has been predicted from the start. When Pressman was first appointed, Politico predicted the relationship between the American ambassador and the country’s prime minister would be that of “public enemies.” Unfortunately, the characterization has been spot-on.
The poor public relationship between the ambassador and the prime minister is a symptom of the broader breakdown of the U.S.-Hungarian relationship. In recent years, America’s diplomatic approach to Hungary has been trying to tell it how it should conduct itself, as opposed to the expected disposition of acting as a partner seeking to address common strategic issues. Whether it has been on the global tax scheme or how to handle the energy shortages ensuing from sanctions against Russia, the American approach has been more akin to giving orders rather than pursuing a healthy dialogue. This is not the reputation a chief American representative such as Pressman wants to have when conducting diplomacy.
Hungarian refusal to comply with American “expectations” has been met with pointed responses. The Biden administration has resorted to measures that have included revoking a joint U.S-Hungarian tax deal last year, which it has yet to reinstate despite Hungary eventually signing on to the global tax treaty. It also excluded Hungary from its “Democracy Summit” in March amid accusations of “democratic backsliding.”
And while Nero fiddles, Rome burns—or, in this case, Kyiv.
Putin’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine constitutes a clear threat to international law and common security that should unite all nations of the West. But Hungarians have voiced opposition to sanctions (though voted for them in policy) and continued negotiating energy deals with Russia. Hungary’s stance has perplexed many with some U.S. officials and mainstream media analysis, characterizing it as treason against NATO and Europe as well as a sign of sympathy for Putin.
In reality, the reasoning behind Hungary’s hesitance is more practical than ideological. Reliance on Russian energy has hindered the whole of Europe, but Hungary’s situation is extreme, with the Russians supplying 85 percent of Hungary’s natural gas, and Russian engineering playing a role in two new nuclear reactors recently approved for construction.
There is also the matter of Hungarians living in the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine. Hungary, along with Romania, has stated that Ukrainian education laws implemented in 2017 threaten to diminish their diaspora’s cultural heritage by stipulating classes be taught primarily in Ukrainian rather than their own languages. The region, which was previously under Hungarian administration until after World War I, holds cultural significance to multiple cultures in the region.
Problems like these can be resolved when Washington and Budapest work together.
There is potential for cooperation on both issues. American liquid natural gas and other energy reserves could provide much-needed relief to Hungary. Exploring long-term plans to include Hungary in the recent tour promoting the construction of nuclear reactors in Finland, Romania, and Poland would also be prudent. For the debate over Transcarpathia, the U.S. standing as a critical ally to both Hungary and Ukraine positions it to be an impartial mediator that has the political capital to reach a resolution.
But rather than seeking to solve problems, dismissal has been Washington’s official disposition—see no further Pressman’s characterization of Hungary’s complaint over the Transcarpathia issue as “cynical.” This appearance of indifference is one that has become a concerning commonality in U.S. relations with other Central and Eastern European nations.
The Biden administration instead has decided it would rather instigate them in an effort to grandstand. The joint “solidarity” position by Washington and Brussels during last year’s energy crisis following sanctions against Russia prioritized form over function. This was a chance for Europe to get one big selfie with Ukraine—a favorite activity of politicians and celebrities with Volodymyr Zelenskyy—to showcase their virtuous “courage” without having to put any real skin in the game. The result has been a protracted conflict with no clear end in sight or even a coherent strategy toward one. Claims that sanctions would force Russia to the negotiation table have been proven wrong.
Such shallow, short-sighted policies have rattled Hungary’s faith in Western leadership, raising the question if the United States can still be counted on to be the guarantor of peace and security in the region, and perhaps even further abroad.
Meanwhile, others seek to fill the vacuum. See no further than Beijing’s diplomatic efforts in the Arabian Gulf—a region of the world America has been fighting wars in for over twenty years. China seeks to prove it can produce a similar result in Eastern Europe through its “Twelve Point Plan” for peace between Ukraine and Russia. Such endeavors play to China’s self-promotion as a peacemaker and America as a warmonger. Central Europe is the place for Washington to prove them wrong.
Allies will not always align on every issue. As Ambassador Pressman himself has said, “independence is not the same as opposition.” Yet cooperation isn’t synonymous with obedience, and dissent from leaders like Viktor Orban does not automatically make them “illiberal, authoritarian despots.” Cooperation despite differences among allies is what America stands for, and unquestioning obedience without tolerance for dissent is what actual despots like Putin aspire to impose.
Should the focus and messaging remain on the differences between Hungary and America, and the accompanying etiquette continually a hostile one, America’s voice will come to mean less and less to Hungarians. Maybe to the point where it is not even considered at all.
Logan C. West is an American visiting research fellow at the Danube Institute in Budapest and a graduate student at the Institute of World Politics in Washington D.C. His research focuses on the geopolitical cyber affairs of Central and Eastern Europe.