Today I would like to say a few words about the usefulness of diplomatic documents in general. If we took Mutt Damon’s criticism seriously, historians could throw in the towel and look for some more useful profession. After all, the past is known to us through all sorts of written documents; if we disregarded them, past centuries would be lost to us. This is especially true in the case of foreign policy issues. Since diplomacy is conducted in secret, written correspondence is our most reliable source for piecing together an approximation of reality.
If I understand Mutt Damon correctly, he doubts the efficacy of the “idle chatter” emanating from diplomatic missions. Okay, he doesn’t use this expression, but that is the message. These documents tell us nothing about reality. The people posted to foreign missions simply formulate their very personal, often misguided opinions. Even if they happen to hit the nail on the head, their observations have about the same value as those expressed in a better blog. (I hope Mutt considers Hungarian Spectrum one of the better ones.)
Although this might be taken as a compliment, I have to disagree. Bloggers write their posts in an unofficial capacity while diplomats report back to their superiors in an official capacity. These superiors, if they trust their subordinates, listen to what they have to say and may formulate policy on the basis of information they receive. So, these diplomats are vital links in a large network of people in charge of official policy.
In addition to the personal assessments of the diplomats on the spot, foreign embassies receive valuable information from all sorts of sources, including opinions expressed by important politicians themselves. One might doubt the veracity of Viktor Orbán’s intent to designate Mihály Varga as his successor, but it would be foolhardy to question the fact that he himself informed U.S. Ambassador April Foley of this decision. And only yesterday, there was a piece of news indicating that although Varga didn’t become economics minister, he is still the closest associate of the prime minister. The article somewhat maliciously added that the choice of Varga has something to do with his colorlessness. Pictured above is the grey eminence of the Orbán administration, who was described by fellow economists as a man of limited abilities.
Moreover, until the release of the documents we had only rumors about Fidesz politicians’ dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán in 2006, after the lost elections. Now we have “proof” that István Stumpf, Orbán’s right-hand man during his first administration, was ready to send him to Brussels, far away from trouble. Or, as Stumpf not so kindly said, perhaps Orbán “might be better suited to the Presidency, which would give him more rhetorical than practical responsibility.” In brief, Stumpf had a devastating opinion of Orbán’s ability to govern. So, it is no wonder that in the new administration Stumpf was tucked away as one of the judges of the enlarged Constitutional Court. Orbán rarely dumps his former associates completely: they are simply given some less important post as a token of his appreciation for services rendered earlier.
Or what about “Debrecen Mayor Lajos Kosa [pictured below], who has candidly indicated his interest in ‘replacing Orban as John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher,’ emphasizing the importance of being seen as Orban’s heir rather than his deposer given his personal following.” It’s no surprise that Orbán described Kósa to April Foley as “an amusing fellow” who shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
These pieces of information have great value for those of us interested in Hungarian politics and will be invaluable to future historians writing the political history of the period. Commentators emphasize that although surely within Fidesz there must be personal rivalries and differences of opinion, the party under the thumb of Viktor Orbán seems pretty impenetrable to outsiders. Now we have information coming from inside the party walls.
Of course, we have also known that Viktor Orbán’s claim to honesty was itself a huge lie, but it’s a boon to a historian to discover that during the election campaign of 2006 he confidentially informed businessmen not to pay much attention to his populist campaign rhetoric. Now we have written confirmation that Orbán, just like all politicians, promised things his followers wanted to hear, not what he intended to deliver.
Orbán’s simple solutions to grave problems are also revealed in these documents. In 2008, for example, he described his tasks after winning the next election: “It is not that complicated. We tell the people that we will restore the greatness of the nation while to the businessmen we will tell what they can expect from Fidesz.” But if you recall from yesterday’s post, the business people were rather skeptical even before the elections. What they think by now we can only surmise.
All in all, although I disapprove of WikiLeaks’s methods, I’m grateful for the valuable information we have received from these cables. I’m pretty sure that Viktor Orbán is upset. At least this is what Péter Szijjártó’s remarks today indicate. According to Szijjártó, the prime minister is not interested in the continuing soap opera of the American entertainment world. That is one way of describing what happened.