In a column published last week in the US-based magazine Foreign Policy, staff writer Emily Tamkin examined why, despite seemingly similar ideological outlooks and encouraging early signals, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has failed to forge a strong relationship with Donald Trump in the first year of the latter’s presidency.
In the article, which can be read in its entirety here, Tamkin begins by noting the numerous occasions upon which Orbán praised Trump as an “upstanding American presidential candidate” who “has made it clear that he regards Hungary highly,” before moving on to ask the question
What went wrong for Orban and Trump?
Tamkin notes the numerous stumbling blocks that have prevented the blossoming of a new era in Hungarian-American relations. These include the role of Sebastian Gorka, the highly controversial Hungarian Trump aide whose brief stint as Deputy Assistant to the President ended last fall. In addition to becoming embroiled in controversy over his purported membership in the Order of Vitéz (a controversy which you can read more about here), Gorka met with Hungarian officials, including Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, during his time in the White House.
Despite this, however, Gorka would prove to be no facilitator of relations between Hungary’s Fidesz-led government and the Trump Administration, due to his personal animosity and earlier political opposition to Viktor Orbán. In particular, while trying (and ultimately failing) to forge a new right-wing party in Hungary, “Gorka openly attacked Orban, accusing him of using 1950s-style communist methods and anti-American views.” In addition, he also declared that Orbán’s party would be unable to win election in Hungary.
Another point of contention that may have surprised Orbán was the US State Department’s reaction to the Hungarian government’s highly controversial higher education amendments, that critics argued targeted one university in particular: Central European University. While the Hungarian Premier may have thought that this “Lex CEU” legislation might find support in the Trump White House due to the President’s shared animosity towards the University’s founder, Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, this turned out to not be the case. Instead, widespread international condemnation of Orbán’s from universities, Nobel Prize winners, and other significant figures pushed the State Department, and the US Embassy in Budapest, to come out in support of CEU.
In her FP article Tamkin also points out that Orbán and his allies in the ruling Fidesz party thoroughly misunderstood the independent nature of the US Civil Service. This independence, which is essentially non-existent in Hungary, is part of the reason why the US Embassy in Budapest and the State Department as a whole have continued to criticize the Hungarian government for corruption and actions that have been perceived as attacks on academic freedom, press freedom, and democracy. Another part of the reason that America’s foreign policy establishment continues to criticize Hungary, as Tamkin writes, is that the Trump administration has been unprecedentedly lax in filling senior diplomatic posts: as of this writing, career diplomat David Kostelancik continues to run the US Embassy in Budapest on an interim basis as Charge d’Affaires, a role he has held for nearly a year now.
On top of all this lies the simple fact that Hungary, despite all of Orbán’s pro-Trump rhetoric, remains low on the White House’s radar. According to Tamkin, with all of the international and domestic crises that Trump is currently attempting to juggle, “the particular problems of one Central European leader, as ideologically similar as he may be, don’t amount to much.”
While Orbán is most likely better off with a Trump presidency than a Hilary Clinton one, and while, as Tamkin notes, there are rumors that the Hungarian Premier might make “be at the National Prayer Breakfast for a photo opportunity in February,” all of this is certainly far less than the PM must have hoped for a year ago.
Taken together, then, the above factors mean that, even though Orbán and Trump might seem, on paper at least, to be a match made in “illiberal” heaven, it is unlikely that Hungary’s PM will become the former reality star’s best friend anytime soon.