Prime Minister Viktor Orbán paid a long overdue visit to the President of the United States on May 13, 2019. The last time he had an invitation from the White House was almost 20 years ago, and the latest time a Hungarian Prime Minister paid an official visit to a U.S. President was in 2005. Despite all of the debates over political and ideological issues during the better part of the past nine years between the Hungarian government and the U.S. administration, it was unusual and abnormal to suspend meetings on the highest level between two allies. So, borrowing a term from Warren G. Harding, PM Orbán’s recent trip to Washington was an important step back to ‘normalcy.’
The turning point was obviously the election of Donald J. Trump. Mr. Trump as a presidential candidate promised a break with several policies of the Obama administration; among others, curbing – and possibly stopping altogether – illegal immigration into the U.S., and abandoning ‘lecturing’ other countries with regard to the conduct of their domestic policies. In other words, giving up the democracy export project of the previous administrations, and basing the relations of the U.S. with other countries on interests first and foremost. A third element of this shift was a different approach by the State Department towards Central and Eastern Europe. The principles were laid by Wess Mitchell, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs from October 2017 to February 2019, who suggested that Washington’s real strategic interest in the region was to counter the growing Russian influence, and not to get mired in disputes over questions of secondary importance with the various governments. It might also be added that, in general, Fidesz-KDNP is much closer ideologically to the Republican Party than to the Democratic Party, and this fact also facilitated the mutual desire to unfreezing the political relations. The emphasis here is on political relations, where defense and security cooperation, as well as the economic and trade relations were in much better shape during the Obama presidency than the political ones.
Defense and energy issues
The issues discussed by the two leaders ranged from enhanced defense cooperation through energy security to such global issues as fighting terrorism. The public statements are mostly kept to generalities, and one can only guess what specific deals were made – or understandings arrived at – in the relatively long meeting behind closed doors. The American Ambassador to Hungary, David B. Cornstein emphasized in interviews after the visit that President Trump and PM Orbán, and the unusually large delegations on both sides, were predominantly discussing overall strategic questions, and they did not get into the details of any of them. One such potential field of strategic partnership is likely to be defense cooperation (after a long overdue agreement had been signed before PM Orbán’s trip by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan). The Hungarian armed forces need to be modernized and U.S. defense contractors are said to be in quite a good position to compete with rivals in this undertaking. Another important issue of strategic importance for the U.S. is energy diversification in Europe. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, with some hyperbole, even said at one point that it would be a second liberation of Europe from under Russian rule. In fact, Hungary is open to receiving gas supplied by American companies – provided the price is right. Here, Exxon-Mobil’s decision to go ahead with partnership of Austria’s ÖMV (and the Romanians) to drill in the Black Sea is still pending. The two sides agreed on the importance of protecting Christian communities in countries where they are persecuted, especially in the Middle East. As for this region, a common ground might have been the U.S.’s and Hungary’s strong support of Israel even in the face of rather widespread criticism in the international community.
Speculation was – and is – also centered on the timing of the meeting, and the subsequent comments made publicly by President Trump with reference to PM Orbán’s policies in the European Union. The American President singled out the determined steps taken by the Hungarian Prime Minister to protect his own country, and claimed that Viktor Orbán is respected in Europe for his policies. The underlying message is clear: national borders should be secured, illegal migration should be stopped, and national sovereignty should be a priority. Given the efforts by primarily the so-called core members of the EU to move towards a federal Europe (a sort of United States of Europe) by concentrating more power in Brussels at the expense of national governments in a kind of zero-sum game; Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw and his speech delivered over there in 2017; his open support of Brexit (“I am Mr. Brexit”); and his asides (or well-calculated comments) about Europe as a ‘foe’, it does not seem to be too wide off the mark to say that President Trump’s invitation to a leader well-known for his resistance to the centralizing tendencies within the EU is a not so subtle message to President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders.
Back to realities
A Breakthrough of Sorts…The Trump administration accused its predecessor of neglecting Central and Eastern Europe (which was the case to some extent), and therefore, allowing a power vacuum to emerge, and outside actors, such as Russia and China, of trying to fill it in. Though people present at the discussions maintain that neither country was brought up as such, American warnings about cybersecurity and regional threats might as well have served as reminders of certain geopolitical and geostrategic realities in the region. Prime Minister Orbán has stated on several occasions that the geopolitical dynamics in Central Europe are defined by Germany, Russia, and Turkey above all else. The message of the Trump-Orbán meeting, together with the visits of the other Central European leaders to Washington seems to be unambiguous: the United States is back.