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“My Love Affair with Hungary Began in 2006”: Exclusive Interview with April H. Foley, Former US Ambassador to Hungary

Last week, Hungary Today had the opportunity to interview April H. Foley, the United States Ambassador to Hungary from 2006 to 2009. Prior to her service as ambassador, Foley held, among other distinguished positions, the role of Vice Chairman of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. She currently serves as the Chair of the Board of the Hungary Initiatives Foundation, and is involved with the US-based think tank the Atlantic Council.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity

Could you speak a bit about the Atlantic Council, and how long you’ve been involved with the Council’s work?

I came to Budapest with the Atlantic Council. The Atlantic Council is one of the oldest NGO-s actively promoting atlanticism in Washington and around the world. It was founded by American citizens not long after the North Atlantic Treaty was signed, so it is very well respected. It’s a little different than the other think thanks because it doesn’t do just research and papers, it actually engages with people in the government, corporate life, the military, and civil society. And it’s really a wonderful convener. The Atlantic Council wanted to come to Budapest because it views itself as a friend of Hungary and a friend of the government of Hungary. We’re very interested in strengthening the ties between the US and Hungary, and letting Hungary know that there are people in Washington who really care about Hungary.

What sort of policy platform positions does the Council advocate for? From the name, I assume it’s pro-NATO?

Yes, the Council advocates for a strong transatlantic relationship as a fundamental basis of a stable international system. So, it’s in favor of strengthening the military relationship between NATO partners, it’s in favor of strong government-to-government as well as people-to-people relationships among the transatlantic community and prospective NATO members. The question is really, how can we strengthen this relationship and make it more productive and happier for both sides.

You mentioned Hungary; are there any specific countries that are the main focus of the Atlantic Council’s advocacy?

We do a lot in Central Europe. It’s mostly the European countries, EU and NATO countries I would say is the primary focus. But the Council is also very active in countries where there is a history of NATO engagement, in the Middle East and Balkans.

Could you talk a bit about how you became Ambassador?

Well, I attended Harvard Business School with George W. Bush. He and I were classmates, and were friends at the time. He was a buddy of mine, and we just stayed in contact with each other over the years. When he ran for Governor of Texas I supported his campaign, and then of course he ran for President of the United States, and I supported him in that. When he came into office, he wanted to have the best record on women of any US President, and so he contacted me, and said “I want you to serve in my administration.”

So first I served as the Vice-Chair of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, Ex-Im Bank. When my term expired there, he asked me if I would be the US Ambassador to Hungary. I was really honored by that, because that’s a plum position. I was just delighted to be offered that position.

Had you ever been to Hungary before becoming Ambassador?

No, I had never been to Hungary before, and most of my recollections were of the 1956 Revolution when I was a young child, seeing pictures of the Pesti boys on the cover of [Time] magazine. As a child, it really touched my heart.

Overall, how would you describe your experience as Ambassador?

I just had a fabulous time. My love affair with Hungary began in 2006, and I’ve just continued to love Hungary all the way through, I’ve never stopped loving Hungary. I love the people. Serving as the US Ambassador was really one of the high points of my life. I just enjoyed every minute of my time here. The Hungarian people are so warm and open and helpful to me all the time. And I felt like I was able to do things here as well.

I’ll tell you about a few accomplishments I’m most proud of. The first relates to the Táncsics Mihály property, over in Buda, which is an old historic building. It’s an absolutely magnificent piece of property that was an old prison, it overlooks the Danube and has spectacular views of the river. I think the US bought the property after World War II to help provide the Hungarian government with some liquidity, but then they wanted that property back, because it had such historic significance. So, we worked out a way to do a property swap: The US Embassy is on Szabadság Tér, and there were two buildings right next to where our embassy was, so we swapped the Táncsics property for these two contiguous buildings, giving us a whole block right on beautiful, leafy Szabadság Tér.

A second one was to get Hungary into the Visa Waiver Program. At the time, western European countries were in the visa waiver program, which enabled citizens of those countries to have a very expedited and simplified process for getting a visa into the United States. And although Hungary was a member of the NATO alliance, and a member of the EU, it was not in the Visa Waiver Program, and Hungarians basically wanted equal treatment. At first, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I cannot deliver on this,” because it requires an Act of Congress…But, what happened is that, when George W. Bush came here in 2006 for the 50th anniversary of the 56 Revolution, he heard that same message, that Hungarians wanted to be in the Visa Waiver Program, and so when we worked it out with Hungary to meet all the hurdles for that program, President Bush provided the effort to get it through Congress. And so, Hungary got into that program. The Hungarian American community was also very engaged in promoting this in Washington at the time.

The third thing is the Pápa airbase. Hungary decided that it wanted to have a NATO airbase somewhere in the NATO countries. The Pápa airbase is an absolutely magnificent airbase, it’s wide-open, it’s huge, it’s well maintained, but there was nothing happening there, there was no business. And so, they wanted Pápa to be the location for the new C-17 program, heavy-lift aircraft. And so, my embassy and I worked very hard with the Ministry of Defense, with the Pentagon in Washington, and with our contacts at the NATO alliance to support Hungary’s bid to get it here. There were other countries that were competing, but we were able to get it here in Hungary, so I was happy about that.

So, you were here on October 23, 2006, when major protests broke out on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.

Yes, and part of it was at Szabadság Tér. I arrived in July 2006, so I had a bit of time. But things are a bit slow during uborka season [salad days] …[laughs]…

As Ambassador, was there any crisis management you had to engage in?

Yes. Strangely enough, our embassy goes through security exercises for crisis management. They’re called table-top exercises, where you say “Ok, here’s a crisis, how are you going to handle it?” And each person goes through it. We had just done a crisis exercise, about 10 days before this, and so everything was very fresh in our minds. But we had to close the embassy, call in the marines, all those things.

Did the embassy end up putting out any official statements or anything similar about the protest?

No, we viewed it as a Hungarian domestic issue.

Having lived here for three years, what do you miss the most about the country?

Well, certainly I miss crossing the Danube River. The ambassador’s residence is on the Buda side, and the embassy of course is on the Pest side. So, every day I would go back and forth across the Danube River, and no matter how many times I went across the river, that sight always grabbed me. It just grabbed me, it’s so dazzlingly beautiful that I just never got over that.

Another thing is, I love Hungarian goose liver, I absolutely adore it. And there’s nothing in the United States that is remotely like Hungarian goose liver, nothing.

I miss hearing the Hungarian national anthem, it’s such a soulful song, and so now if I go to a Hungarian event in New York or Washington and they play that national anthem I just become bitterly homesick for Hungary.

I miss days like today. There are sunny days of the summer when families are out, and people are out on the streets, and they’re walking around the castle district, and they’re eating and having fun, and they have their children, they’re shopping, it’s just blissful.

I miss the Parliament building. That long red staircase that you go up, to go to your meetings, I miss that sense of excitement and anticipation that I would have going up that staircase, but also feeling like you’re in a historic building, with echoes of a bygone era. It’s magical being in there.

And finally, I miss hand-kissing. I mean, I wish there was hand-kissing in the United States of America. Americans have a lot to learn from Hungary about life.

You’re currently heading the Hungary Initiatives Foundation. I was just wondering if you could talk about how you became involved with the Foundation.

Prime Minister Orbán was very interested in strengthening the ties of friendship between the US and Hungary. And so, he worked with parliament to set aside some funds to endow a foundation in the US that would support strengthening the people-to-people relationship between the two countries. He invited me to chair the Hungary Initiatives Foundation. First of all, I was pleased that he had the vision and wisdom to make this happen. There are some other countries who have similar initiatives, but Hungary was not one of them. But he was willing to take a bold step, and make this happen. So, I was really honored, and I share his desire to strengthen the bonds of friendship between our two nations.

And I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do at the Hungary Initiatives Foundation. Last year, we made grants of about $600,000. We supported Hungarian-American organizations that are doing wonderful things promoting Hungarian culture in the United States, we supported scholarships, we supported internships, we supported artists and scientists, who were planning to go over to the United States with a program. We helped them make ends meet for their trip, so that their trip could become a reality. We did a lot of work on the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Revolution.

The ’56 Revolution really resonates with Hungarian-Americans, and we supported all kinds of things, from memorial concerts to lectures to folk-dance performances to inaugurating ’56 memorials in the United States. So, it was a very touching and unifying year for the Hungarian-American community, and I feel happy that we were able to contribute to that. And I also feel that, when Hungarian students are able to spend a year in the United States, or even a semester in the United States, it changes their attitude toward the United States, really, for many of them, for their entire lives. And that’s a very positive contribution that we can make to support talented Hungarians.

So, the Foundation’s main purpose is to distribute grants to Hungarian-American organizations and to other groups as well?

The foundation is an independent, Washington-based, non-profit – as we say in America, a 501c3 – organization with an endowment large enough to allow us to think long term. So we invest in fellowship and leadership programs for young Hungarians, we provide graduate and conference support scholarships and also make grants to Hungarian American and other US-based organizations that are interested in promoting Hungarian culture within their larger community.

How much does this work overlap with the kind of work you did as ambassador here?

It’s very similar, because I have a great devotion to Hungary, and this enables me to keep my contacts with Hungary fresh. But it also enables me to build bonds of friendship here, and it enables me to act on the needs of Hungarians in a way that strengthens their ties to the United States. And I think it also enables our organization to give Hungarians a more positive view of the United States at the same time, which I think contributes to stronger long-term relationships between our two countries.

The ongoing “Lex CEU” controversy triggered a reaction from the current Chargé d’affaires and all over the world. I was wondering what your reaction has been to that?

I don’t feel equipped to comment on that really, I just don’t know enough of the ins and outs of it, sorry.

I have a similar question about the NGO law that the Hungarian government passed recently that likewise triggered a similar response from the Chargé and the embassy.

Here again, I’m just not that familiar with the specifics of the law to comment.

Have you seen the recent ‘Soros’ billboard campaign, that recently drew comment and concern from Mazsihisz, the Jewish community here? Do you have any reaction to that either?

I don’t.

I know you served under a different Republican administration entirely, but do you have any thoughts or inkling of who the next Ambassador to Hungary might be?

Well, I’ve heard a lot of speculation, and there are a lot of names that are floating around, and all of them I would say are very highly qualified people. But I have no idea, I have no special insight into who the first choice will be. I hope that President Trump is able to appoint an ambassador soon, because it’s an important job, and it needs to be filled.

No personal favorites that you’d like to see fill the post? No gossip you’d like to share?

No… [laughs]

Reporting by Tom Szigeti

Photos by Vivien Cher Benko