The Art of the Illiberal Deal
May 10, 2019
On Monday, May 13, President Trump will welcome Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban to the Oval Office. The timing, if not the news, of this visit reportedly surprised many senior Department of State and National Security Council officials. Senior U.S. officials continue to underappreciate what many leaders have mastered: speak directly to President Trump to get the outcome you seek. This is true of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, among others. In the case of Viktor Orban, it has been reported that the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, made a direct appeal to the president, which set the wheels in motion for Monday’s meeting. It may be that Ambassador Cornstein was also motivated to acknowledge Hungary’s decision to move its diplomatic mission to Jerusalem.
Last year, Ambassador Cornstein pledged in his written confirmation statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he would “advance American interests and [. . .] promote American and democratic values” in Hungary. But over the course of the Trump administration’s tenure to date, Prime Minister Orban and his government have thwarted nearly every U.S. bilateral interest in Hungary. Yet we reward this obstruction with the honor of an Oval Office meeting? It is difficult to see how one can make U.S. foreign policy great again when the United States incurs policy failure after policy failure; if anything, this is humiliating for the United States.
The list of failures includes:
- Stemming Russian malign influence: Significant and ongoing failure. Prime Minister Orban has met annually with President Putin since the 2014 annexation of Crimea (at least six times in total) and has encouraged the headquartering in Budapest of Russia’s International Investment Bank (IIB), which is considered an instrument of Russian espionage and malign economic influence—he has also granted the bank diplomatic immunity. This is in spite of Secretary Pompeo’s warning to Hungary to push back against Russian influence, a warning he delivered in person in Budapest days before the IIB agreement was signed.
- Diversifying energy sources from Russia: A growing failure. Although there will undoubtedly be talks of greater U.S. energy investments in Europe during the White House meeting, the Hungarian government is doubling down on its Russian energy dependency, whether that is nuclear power (Paks nuclear power plant) or natural gas via the TurkStream pipeline (the southern European equivalent of Nord Stream 2). Perhaps the Trump administration should use the same talking points it uses with Berlin on this issue.
- Cooperating with U.S. law enforcement: Failure. The United States requested the extradition of two suspected Russian arms dealers on weapons and drug charges in November 2018. The Hungarian government refused and extradited them to Russia.
- Getting Hungary to allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Ukrainian government to convene senior-level talks: Failure. Hungary continues to block this important dialogue ostensibly because of its discontent with Ukraine’s treatment of the country’s Hungarian minority.
- Finalizing the ratification of the U.S.-Hungarian Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) in the Hungarian parliament: Yet to be achieved. Hungary’s executive signed the agreement (after much hesitation) in April 2019, but parliament has still not ratified the DCA, despite Mr. Orban’s complete control of the chamber; this should be a straightforward process for him and his party if he wanted the matter closed.
- Fostering an increase in Hungarian defense spending: Failure. Hungary ranks near the bottom of the 29 NATO members in terms of defense spending, spending an estimated 1.15 percent of GDP in 2018 (2010 prices)—although the government says it could reach 2 percent by 2026. Again, the administration should give Budapest the full brunt of the pressure it applies to other European allies in this regard.
- Stemming Chinese economic influence: Evident failure. Prime Minister Orban was the first European leader to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative; he was an enthusiastic participant in this year’s Belt and Road Forum, signing a bilateral development agreement; and Budapest hosts Huawei’s largest supply and logistics center outside China.
- Keeping Central European University (CEU) in Hungary: Significant failure (and once a reported U.S. “red line”). This U.S.-accredited institution has been forced to move from Budapest to Vienne by a law passed by the Hungarian parliament—which Orban’s party controls—that only applies to CEU.
- Allowing the convicted former prime minister of a soon-to-be NATO member to flee to Hungary with the reported help of Hungarian diplomats: Unhelpful. In November 2018, Nikola Gruevski fled North Macedonia after being convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to two years in prison. The name agreement between Greece and North Macedonia is a great success for the United States, but Hungary continues to undercut transatlantic efforts to stabilize the Western Balkans.
So what is the United States getting out of Mr. Orban’s visit to Washington?
There have been suggestions that Orban may announce the purchase of U.S. military equipment, which would be touted as a victory by President Trump. But Hungary is unlikely to purchase any major weapons systems. It is important to recall that 18 years ago, the Hungarian government informed the United States it would purchase U.S.-made F-16s, but Prime Minister Orban ultimately purchased the Swedish-made Gripen, a non-NATO fighter jet that initially presented interoperability challenges. A more pressing and serious question in the security relationship is the reliability of Hungary as an intelligence partner, given the extent of Russian and Chinese influence in the country today. Rather than military equipment purchases, consideration should be given to the continuation of NATO intelligence sharing with Hungary, for example through NATO’s Intelligence Fusion Center.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush noted in a speech to a Europe partitioned by communism that “the division of Europe is under siege not by armies but by the spread of ideas.” It was the spread of the ideas of freedom, security, and prosperity, represented and encouraged by the United States, that helped tear down the walls separating Europe. Thirty years ago, a U.S. president harnessed the true power and strength of the United States—its ideals and ideas—to enormous effect. And a very young Viktor Orban celebrated those ideals and called himself a “freedom fighter.” Now, Mr. Orban fights not for freedom but against it. And a U.S. president no longer represents or promotes American values.
Although the United States is unable to advance its interests in Hungary, President Trump will be able to welcome a kindred political spirit to the Oval Office. Mr. Orban can offer suggestions on how to successfully eradicate a free press, reduce the independence of the central bank and the courts, and do so while blaming the country’s perceived ills on “outside financiers” such as George Soros and on migration from Muslim-majority countries. Both leaders can spend comparing notes on border wall or fence construction and the benefits of concertina wire. They can hone their anti-immigrant rhetoric and celebrate their proclaimed sovereignty. There will be no talk of the values of rule of law and liberal democracy that have long been the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.
Oh, how far we have traveled over the past 30 years. We can only mourn Monday’s meeting in the Oval Office.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. The author would like to thank Donatienne Ruy, a research associate with the CSIS Europe Program, for her valuable input.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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