The Orbán government has a rocky relationship with Democratic U.S. leaderships. How might U.S.-Hungarian relations progress under the Biden Administration, and how will changes in the attitude of the White House to the international scene affect Hungary?
A Rocky Relationship
Orbán and his government made it abundantly clear that they supported Donald Trump in the 2020 elections, and that they would really not like to have to deal with the Democrats. Orbán himself said that
The Hungarian government roots for Donald Trump’s victory, because we are well-acquainted with American Democratic governments’ foreign policy built on moral imperialism. We have sampled it before, even if involuntarily. We did not like it, we do not want seconds.”
Orbán’s relationship with the Democrats indeed was, and still is, rather strained. The Obama administration avoided bi-lateral contact with the Orbán-led Hungarian government for years as retribution for what they saw as efforts to establish authoritarian rule. As recently as October, then presidential candidate now President-Elect Joe Biden expressed his disapproval of what he believes is the rise of totalitarianism in Hungary at a town hall meeting in Philadelphia.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has developed an “exceptionally good relationship” with Trump himself, to quote the PM’s words. According to recently retired American ambassador to Hungary David B. Cornstein, relations between Hungary and the U.S. at the end of his tenure were much better than when he got here. No doubt the government would have liked to continue dealing with a Republican White House. Alas, that was not to be.
The Government’s Position: Pragmatic Cooperation
Now that Biden is to take over the presidency in January, the Hungarian government may want to strike a different chord if they are to avoid potential antagonism between the U.S. and Hungary, and maintain at least some part of the good relations that have developed between the countries over the past four years.
Discussing U.S. Hungarian relations under the Biden Administration, President of the Parliament’s Foreign Committee Zsolt Németh (of Fidesz) believes a sort of pragmatic relationship can be established between the Hunagrian and U.S. governments, even as cooperation between Hungary and their ideological allies, Republican conservatives, is continued to be strengthened.
Responding to the query about whether Orbán’s support of Trump may influence American-Hungarian relations, although Németh did not answer the question, he said that it is important to identify fields in which U.S. and Hungarian leadership can cooperate, but that Hungary will keep its relationship with conservative America, going. He trusts that ideological considerations will not weaken the strong cooperation between the two countries in NATO.
Speaking on the issue at the Friends of Hungary Foundation’s Hungary at First ‘Site’ Conference, State Secretary for International Communication and Relations Zoltán Kovács said that even though the Orbán government had its fair share of debates with previous Democrat administrations, due to their “preaching tone and lessons on democracy,” Hungary is and always has been open to discussions that are based on mutual respect.
State Secretary for Security Policy Péter Sztáray noted that Hungary and the United States share similar interests in several areas, including the notion of a strong central Europe, the integrity of NATO and strong transatlantic ties, enhancing defense cooperation, maintaining Hungary’s contribution to international peacekeeping missions, and continuing the fight against terrorism.
The state secretary added that at the same time, the incumbent Hungarian government and the incoming US administration disagreed on matters such as the interpretation of the concept of democracy and sovereignty as well as “the extent of pragmatism” they exercise in their ties with Russia and China. Yet, Hungary is ready to further develop relations with the United States on the basis of mutual respect.
A complex reality
In a practical sense, when it comes to bilateral relations, we can expect the Biden Administration to be less amicable towards the Orbán government. The US may find it difficult to cooperate with a country that is waging ideological war on what it sees as antidemocratic strongmen. István Dobozi, a former senior economist at the World Bank, writes that under Joe Biden, US-Hungarian relations could go downhill fast, and many analysts agree.
It certainly will not help Hungary’s case that Orbán backed Trump so vocally, or that Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó directed some rather antagonistic messages at Biden himself in reply to his insinuating Hungary was totalitarian. For that matter, Minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Gulyás saying that exporting democracy is “very dangerous” because “little may be left of it at home,” commenting on the U.S. elections, may also not help establish an amicable relationship.
Yet, while bilateral relations can reasonably be expected to sour, in a global sense, Hungary may see many benefits to a Biden presidency. Primarily, Biden supports international institutions and free trade more than Trump, which is beneficial to Hungary due to the country’s size and the structure of its economy. Zsolt Németh says that internationally we will see a return to multilateralism under Biden.
More concretely, Hungary is a member of the EU and the transatlantic community, and the success of the EU and NATO is in our interest. Biden’s internationalism and multilateralism make him clearly more advantageous for Hungary than Trump was in this regard. While Trump has compared the EU to China, and in a sense views Europe as an economic rival, according to Németh, we can expect The U.S. to strive for a closer relationship with the EU.
This is important for us, because it will likely mean a normalization of economic relations between Germany and the U.S., which became rather tense under Trump. Hungary is connected very strongly to the German economy, so avoiding a potential trade war will be beneficial. Trump has also expressed his dissatisfaction with NATO multiple times and has sought to diminish its importance in U.S. security policy, while Biden wants to take a more active role again in the organization.
Biden would also not reverse a lot of Trump’s decisions that agree with Hungarian positions and interests, such as an embassy in Jerusalem. Németh expects there to be no radical changes when it comes to the central questions of U.S. foreign policy overall, such as China, Russia, and military involvement abroad. However, potential further deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations would not be favorable to Hungary given the country’s energy security and geopolitical situation.
All in all, while it may be difficult to achieve the kind of pragmatic bilateral cooperation the the Hungarian government intends to given ideological conflict and the not-so-amicable relationship between the Democrats and Hungary, the country may see many benefits from Biden’s global agenda.
Featured photo by MTI/AP/Carolyn Kaster