Hungary - US relations

Scenes from a Marriage

U.S.-Hungarian relations in the 21st century

Marriages can be of different nature. Some are between equals, others between partners where one is more equal than the other’. U.S.-Hungarian relations clearly fall into the latter category; given the size, the capabilities and the opportunities of the two countries, it is a euphemism used only in polite circles that they are equal partners in bilateral relations.

On a strategic level, it is fairly safe to say that the United States, together with Germany and Russia, basically defines and shapes the geopolitical and geostrategic environment for Hungary. The reverse, of course, cannot be said of the U.S. In fact, American policies toward Hungary and much of Central and Eastern Europe, have frequently been subordinated to U.S.-Russian relations in the name of the ’Russia First’ concept, which enjoys quite the popularity in the Department of State and the White House. This also means, by implication, that it is Washington that primarily defines the dynamics of bilateral relations. In other words, when U.S. interests in the region require the cooperation of Hungary, relations are warm, and if U.S. interests are not so pronounced, questions of secondary importance, such as ‘values’, take the foreground.

Erratic ties

A ’honeymoon’ characterized the late 1990s when Hungary joined NATO, or, given the role Hungary played as a host nation for NATO forces even before 1999, NATO had joined Hungary first. Hungary played a crucial role in the Kosovo conflict as a staging area for U.S. troops. However, after Romania’s accession to the Atlantic Alliance, Hungary lost much of its strategic importance for NATO as Romania has been able to provide better access to trouble spots in the Balkans and the Black Sea region.

Breakthrough 2019 Hungarian-American military exercise
Breakthrough 2019 Hungarian-American military exercise | Photo by Zsolt Szigetváry/MTI

Relations started to sour between Hungary and the U.S. in late 2001 because of some hostile comments in the Hungarian Parliament after 9/11, and the botched leasing of Gripen JAS-39 fighter aircraft instead of American F-16s, which had been considered shoo-ins even on the day the Hungarian cabinet ultimately opted for the Swedish-British plane. These events earned no friends for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the U.S. In fact, even his fiery speech on June 16, 1989 in which he demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, was considered to be ill-advised by some in Washington, who would have preferred a sort of ’Second Yalta’ in Central and Eastern Europe.

Salutary neglect

The better part of the 2000s brought about a ‘salutary neglect’ of the region; or, as Professor Charles Gáti put it, decision makers in Washington “ticked off” the region. Most of the countries between the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and the Adriatic had joined the Atlantic Community (NATO and the European Union) during the decade, and challenges for the U.S. emerged elsewhere in the shape of, first and foremost, a rising China in the Pacific and the Far East, and transnational terrorism centered in the greater Middle East and Central Asia. Hungary was trying its best to support the U.S. diplomatically (the Letter of Eight in January 2003) on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, in opposition to such countries as France, Germany, and Russia. Later, Hungary contributed as many troops as it could muster to peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the Balkans. Although these were not game changers in either place, U.S. administrations appreciated the goodwill and the efforts. There were occasional spats between the Socialist-Free Democrat government and the Bush administration over Hungary’s one-sided dependence on Russian oil and gas imports, but the general atmosphere of bilateral relations was good, though not exceptionally warm.

Non-interference in domestic affairs

Things started to take a different shape following the victory of the Fidesz-KDNP coalition in the parliamentary elections of spring 2010. The neoconservative elements in the Obama administration, bent on the promotion of democracy all over the world, questioned some of the principles embodied in the new Fundamental Law of Hungary adopted in April 2011. Their criticism was regarded as interference in Hungary’s sovereignty by the Orbán government, and political relations started to go south. The differences in principles and opinions spilt into the open and the parties were caught in a vicious circle of sorts where neither side could back off without losing face. At the same time, defense and security cooperation went quite smoothly despite recurrent American demands that Hungary spend at least 2% of its GDP on defense. Hungary, in the company of other NATO-members that were also lagging behind in defense spending, finally committed itself to meeting the target by 2024. Under current plans, the target date may even be earlier than 2024.

Trade and economic relations were picking up, by 2019 some 1,700 U.S. companies employed about 100,000 people in Hungary, making the U.S. the second largest investor in Hungary after Germany. Political relations took a turn for the better with the Trump administration. Theoretically, the U.S. abandoned the freedom project or democracy promotion in general. In particular, A. Wess Mitchell, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (2017-2019) suggested a different approach to Hungary and, by extension, the Central and East European region. He believed the strategic interests of the U.S. required good relations with countries in the area and considered that issues of secondary importance (such as endless debates about ’democratic’ values, etc.) should be put on the back burner.

President Trump seems to endorse the idea that Central and Eastern Europe is one of the pivotal strategic areas for the U.S. besides the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. Under the same reasoning, U.S.-Hungarian relations, as part of the overall strategy, should be friendly and cooperative with non-interference in domestic affairs. PM Orbán’s ‘Hungary First’ agenda meshes with President Trump’s ‘America First’ idea and creates common ground for political understanding. In sum, the years of ’marriage counseling’ seem to be succeeded by a more tolerant attitude toward the spouse’s/partner’s idiosyncrasies.

Tamás Magyarics

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