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“Orbán is a Predictor”: Interview with April H. Foley, Former US Ambassador to Hungary

Fanni Kaszas 2019.01.14.

Earlier this month, 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 a member of the Friends of Hungary Community.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity

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How did you become the Ambassador to Hungary?

I went to Harvard Business School with George W. Bush. As you know, I am a political appointee, so I was friendly with George Bush during our time at Harvard and we remained friends throughout the years. He wanted to have a lot of talented women in his administration. First, I was vice-chairman of the Export-Import Bank of the US, which took advantage of my business background. Then he said he wanted me to be an ambassador and gave me countries to choose from and I decided on Hungary.

Did you learn Hungarian either before or during your time in the country? The current British Ambassador, Iain Lindsay, is quite popular due to the videos of him citing Hungarian poetry.

Well, as I am a political appointee and the training period for us is much shorter, not enough. I did learn quite a lot of the language, but mostly only greetings. I tried to use as much Hungarian as I could.

Do you still visit Hungary sometimes? What do you miss the most and least about the country?

I spent three years in Hungary, so of course one of the things I miss most is the friends I made. I got to know some people very well and I am very fond of them. I found Hungarians to be well-educated, articulate, bright, fun, funny, witty and just a delight to be with. So of course, it’s the friendships that I miss the most. But I also miss just being in the streets of Budapest. It’s just so beautiful, especially its architecture and the little details you can observe as you drive through the city. There’s always something to see. For example, even the fences in Budapest are so exquisite and beautiful. I go back to Hungary fairly frequently. I have to say that since I left the city in 2009, Hungary has become a very prosperous country. The government has put economic policies into place that have been very successful and it has invested some of those proceeds towards revitalizing Budapest. So, I think Budapest is now more beautiful than ever; it’s just a dazzling city. I have taken some trips to other capitals along the Danube, and Budapest is by far the most beautiful. I guess what I don’t miss is the scaffolding. For years there was scaffolding on Matthias Church and the Parliament and now that it’s gone, you can appreciate the true beauty of the buildings.

photo: Vivien Cher Benkő/Hungary Today

You are still engaged with Hungarian-related organizations. Could you describe how these opportunities came about and what you would do to strengthen Hungarian-US ties?

Yes. I am involved with the Hungary Initiatives Foundation. It’s an organization that’s doing wonderful work and I chair it. We primarily support the education of Hungarians in the United States. The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of very, very talented Hungarian students and scholars and they are getting into the best schools now, including Harvard, Yale and Stanford. However, the financial package frequently isn’t as complete as it should be. So we supplement their financial package to make it possible for them to come to the United States and study here. Mostly, we are supporting graduate education. We also support fellowships and internships. I guess it’s our feeling that in Washington DC, Hungary is underrepresented. It doesn’t have as broad a network within the influential Washington community as one might think, and it can breed misconceptions about Hungary. Other countries have spent more money on creating networks of friendships. We bring people over for what we think is a meaningful amount of time—so not for two weeks or a month, but for six months or a year—and we get them into programs that are education or work centered. This often involves think tanks which help the participants learn how thought leadership works in Washington DC. They are building friendships and creating their own relationships and networks they can build on later, even when back in Hungary. We think this will enhance understanding and strengthen the people-to-people relationship between the two countries.

Are you working with other Hungarian organizations in the US? Foundations, Associations or Hungarian Houses?

We also do some Diaspora work. However, I would say much of the Diaspora work is now done by the Bethlen Gábor Foundation, which is a wonderful foundation and they are doing outstanding work. The government of Hungary has really great perspectives on the different types of work that needs to be done here and they are trying to create areas of expertise and make sure that the organizations are not overlapping each other. So there’s clarity about each one’s doing.

Back to your work as ambassador, how would you describe your experience?  What kind of difficulties did you have?

One of the most difficult problems I faced was trying to get the Visa Waiver Program. At the time, Hungary really wanted to have the program. Their position was that they are members of the European Union and other members do not have to have a visa when they go to the United States, so why should they? I have to admit that I was kind of skeptical when I first learned this was something that the Hungarians really wanted. I was also skeptical of my ability to make it happen because it required an Act of Congress and I was in Budapest. I worked very hard with the embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hungary. Also George W. Bush visited Hungary in 2006, and he became convinced that this was a necessary and important thing to do. When he got behind getting Hungary into the Visa Waiver Program, it became a lot easier to get an Act of Congress. It requires a lot of convincing getting anything to the Congress; it is always a difficult body to work with. Both Hungary and I were very happy with the outcome. There were many situations in the past that created bad feelings, but getting the country into the program is great for Hungarians and Americans as well.

Do you consider this your biggest success as ambassador?

Yes, definitely. I’m also very proud of another project, the Pápa air base. There was a new C17 program for these heavy-lift aircraft and the commander of Ramstein air base very much wanted it in Germany and the Romanians wanted it in Romania. Hungary had the Pápa air base, a beautiful, well-maintained one, but it hadn’t been used. The government wanted it put to use and I fought very hard to get the program to Hungary and was successful. That required a lot of work with the Ministry of Defense, NATO Allies and Washington.

Were there any controversies surrounding you during your time as ambassador? I have seen some criticism and negative media claiming that you consulted more with the opposition—which was Fidesz at the time—than the government officials.

Yes, of course there were controversies. I wanted to have balance and conversations with the political parties. And at that time, there were many political parties in Hungary. I spent time with and tried to listen to all of them, hear their point of views and learn what their interpretations were of the events of the day in Hungary. Part of the job of the embassy is to keep Washington informed about relevant information. You can’t do that fairly unless you are very connected with a broad spectrum. The fact of the matter is that I worked closely with the government of Hungary and spent the most time with the Minister of Defense and the Foreign Ministry.

You said in an interview that the job of an ambassador is important and needs to be filled. However, the position hasn’t been filled for more than a year. How do you feel about it? Do you think it’s better to have a political diplomat in Hungary?

I was against it. It is really important to have an ambassador in place. I know that Ambassador Cornstein, who had gone through the whole process, also knew, but he just couldn’t get his Senate confirmation for various political reasons. In the meantime, things were somewhat adrift. I was a political ambassador and I had a good relationship with President Bush; I knew him and could call him on the phone. Ambassador Cornstein has a good relationship with President Trump. He knows him really well, and that’s important for a country. Things are changing quite a bit, which, in my opinion, makes it more important to have a political ambassador.

photo: Vivien Cher Benkő/Hungary Today

I know there is a completely different administration now than there was during your time as an ambassador, but how do you view the relationship between the US and Hungary now as compared to then? The Guardian wrote that “Trump has broken with his two predecessors—George W. Bush and Barack Obama—by engaging Orbán, rather than trying to isolate him.”

I think we are in a new era in the world and it’s an era of great power competition and what we, the US, are seeing is that other great powers are competing for Hungary. All of them want more influence in and relations with Hungary. Previously, the United States wasn’t necessarily strengthening the friendship between the two countries and its approach was too critical and judgmental. I think now, in this new era, we have decided that the job of the embassy is to make a friend of Hungary and to keep it close to us. So that means we had to change our approach and be less critical. I think Ambassador Cornstein is doing a great job reflecting that change and bringing Hungary closer to the US. He also holds a great deal of respect for Hungary’s sovereignty. Meaning there are certain decisions that belong to Hungary and the US should not interfere with them. It’s a tough balance to strike, but I think it will create a better friendship in the long term and that’s desirable.

As you said, the US Embassy views a lot of things as Hungarian domestic issues and does not want to interfere, but surely, the embassy—and you as former ambassador—have an opinion about Central European University leaving Hungary. Rector Michael Ignatieff wrote that “CEU has been forced out,” while the government commented on it as “political bluff” and said they don’t want to deal with it. What is your reaction to this?

When I was ambassador, the US Embassy worked with CEU on several events. Much of their infrastructure and educational programs will remain in Budapest, so there will still be opportunities to cooperate with CEU. However, I don’t think this is about academic freedom and I think there has been a fair amount of misinterpretation in the press. I think Ambassador Cornstein made an important analogy when he referenced his career as a small jewelry boutique operator within a large department store. He knew when he entered into this arrangement that managing his relationship with the department store would be the key to his success. He couldn’t be successful with his jewelry store unless he maintained good working relations with the department store. I think this wisdom was somehow lost when CEU put together its negotiating strategy. I think that’s unfortunate.

photo: Vivien Cher Benkő/Hungary Today

What is your opinion about the representation of Hungary in the US press? They are rather critical of the Hungarian government and Prime Minister Orbán.

And that’s unfortunate. I recently read an article where they wrote that Orbán is a predictor and his positions are more reflective of the future than other leaders’. He sort of anticipates and I was happy to see someone recognizing that attribute. He has the capability to understand which way the political winds are blowing. I’m hoping that in the future, the Hungary Initiatives Foundation will be able to figure out ways to foster more journalistic involvement between the two countries. With better connections and better understanding in journalistic circles, we can more adequately navigate the nuances of what is going on in Hungary and the United States.

With the newly formed media foundation in Hungary and the closure of some of the biggest opposition newspapers and news portals, some argue that this is the end of freedom of the press in Hungary.

Well, I know there’s been a lot of discussion surrounding the topic lately. However, I read the Hungarian press every day and there is always fighting. This side is bashing that side and that side is bashing the other. So, regardless of what is going on behind the scenes in ownership and things like that, there is still a real diversity of voices in the Hungarian press in my opinion. As a matter of fact, I was interested to see that after the Hungarian election, OECD, who monitored the Hungarian elections, said—and I agree—that the intense arguments and debates in the press were so severe and distracting that in some cases it was difficult to see what the real issues were. And I thought: “Wait a minute; this is not the picture of a country lacking freedom of the press or the media.”

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Reporting and translation by Fanni Kaszás

Photos: Vivien Cher Benkő, from a previous interview with April H. Foley.