U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell delivered a speech before the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament on May 5. It was given behind closed doors, a decision, it would seem, of the Fidesz-KDNP majority urged on them by Zsolt Németh, Fidesz chairman of the committee. Ordering a closed session for such an occasion is unusual, and the Hungarian media–or more specifically Népszava, the only major newspaper to pay attention to the event–began speculating about the source of the decision. Some who were familiar with preparations for the event claimed that it was the ambassador herself who had insisted on secrecy, which seems unlikely since her remarks were promptly published on the U.S. Embassy’s website. The lack of coverage of the speech by leading pro-government publications also supports my suspicion that Zsolt Németh was not eager to make the content of the speech public.
Of course, we don’t know what kind of bad news or unpleasant messages Németh expected from the ambassador. In reality, her remarks were far too complimentary to the Orbán government. My recurring complaint about U.S. policy toward Hungary is that American diplomats fail to understand Viktor Orbán’s way of thinking. The Americans coat their criticisms with so many layers of sugary compliments that the casual reader has a hard time finding even the few mild criticisms. This is not the way to talk to Orbán’s entourage. Orbán and his minions consider such overly polite speech a sign of weakness, which only encourages further verbal aggression on the part of the Hungarian government.
Unlike some others, I am not surprised that Bell didn’t level any criticism of the Orbán government’s domestic policies in this speech. After all, it was delivered before members of the foreign affairs committee, and therefore it was focused almost exclusively on international
relations. But refraining from criticism of domestic policy is one thing, sending unnecessary and most likely counterproductive love messages to the Orbán government is something else.
At the beginning of her speech she recalled that she arrived in Hungary in the dead of winter. Since then, she has worked with government and opposition politicians “so that together, out of that winter, we would force the spring. Our collective effort has succeeded.”
To demonstrate the excellence of U.S.-Hungarian relations, Bell reached back, probably to David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, for her guiding image: “you may know the old joke about the fish who was asked one day, ‘So, how’s the water?’ And the fish replied, ‘Water? What the heck is water?’ This is how our alliance feels to us both, like the water we swim in, scarcely felt but all around us, our life support, our milieu.” Isn’t that a tad more than polite diplomatic language? This and similar undeserved praise throughout her speech blunted the few messages she delivered to the Hungarian government on Russia, Ukraine, and the handling of the refugee crisis.
As I said, one has to look hard to find substantive U.S. messages, but she was pretty clear on the American commitment to maintain sanctions against Russia. You may recall that Viktor Orbán, during his visit to Moscow, indicated to Vladimir Putin that Hungary would not support the automatic renewal of the sanctions. So let’s see what Bell had to say on this topic.
As many Hungarians reminded me, you need no introduction to the nature of Russian aggression. Your response has always been to show resolve. Our best weapons, in fact, are resolve and solidarity. They speak to our unity and our common purpose. Europe and the United States are going to continue to stand united, sustaining sanctions for as long as they are necessary, and providing assistance to Ukraine until full implementation of the Minsk agreement…. Hungary has made economic sacrifices to support Russian sanctions, and you have done so with the full awareness of their greater purpose. We in the international community know that sanctions are having a direct impact on Russia. As the United States and Hungary have both stated many times, Russia has a simple choice: fully implement Minsk or continue to face sanctions.
I read this passage with astonishment because this is not how I remember the recent course of Russian-Hungarian relations. Resolve to stick with sanctions? Just remember all the negotiations with Russia over handling Hungarian agricultural exports differently from those of the rest of the EU countries because, after all, Hungary is such a good friend of Putin’s Russia. Or, what about Viktor Orbán’s pronouncement that by voting for sanctions the EU shot itself in the foot? I assume from the words of the ambassador that the duplicitous Hungarian prime minister has already reversed himself. But do these “concessions” on Orbán’s part warrant all this lavish praise from the United States? I believe that such a reaction only encourages Viktor Orbán’s double games.
And the panegyric doesn’t end here. We learn that
Hungary has all the imagination, vision, and understanding to contribute substantially to collective security, to endow the global economy with its resources and its enterprise, and to broker solutions to conflicts that defy other statesmen. Whether it is the moral resolve that drives European unity on sanctions or the material sacrifice of investing more in your country’s defense to meet the pledge of the Wales Summit, Hungary is striving to meet some of the most critical challenges of the day. More than this, Hungary is equal to the great challenges of our times and the United States is counting on you.
The only conceivably critical sentence in the entire lengthy speech was the following: “Every sovereign nation has the right and an obligation to protect its borders. But every nation, as a part of the international community, also has a fundamental obligation to help refugee populations seeking safety. We commend the humanitarian spirit of Hungarian leaders, law enforcement and military personnel, and ordinary citizens who are responding to this crisis with generosity and compassion.” Even here, however, what started off as potential criticism ended up as praise.
We also learned from this speech that “Hungary and the United States share the view that our alliance is the cornerstone of our security, and that together, we secure a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace,” a rather surprising observation in light of Viktor Orbán’s relentless efforts to divide Europe, thus making it a potential target of Russian diplomatic machinations.
All in all, this speech, which bordered on the servile, didn’t show the United States in the best light. No wonder, therefore, that both Chairman Zsolt Németh and Deputy Chairman Gábor Vona (Jobbik) expressed their utmost satisfaction after the session was over. Németh noted that “a perceptible change” for the better has occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations, while Vona specifically mentioned the attitude of the ambassador, who is “more open, more ready for consensus” than her predecessors.
Pro-government papers decided not to spend any time on the speech itself. I suspect the reason for their silence is what they would consider a shameful capitulation of their favorite government on several issues that are important to the United States: Russian sanctions, defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and a positive attitude toward Europe which should remain “whole.”
Instead, G. Gábor Fodor’s internet rag, 888.hu, picked up an English-language article by Daniel McAdams, the director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, described by James Kirchick, a freelance journalist writing for The Daily Beast, as “a bevy of conspiracy theorists, cranks, and apologists for some of the worst regimes on the planet.” McAdams is no stranger to Hungary, having spent six years there as a journalist. During this time he was the editorial page editor of the Budapest Sun. McAdams also worked closely with John Laughland, who was described in Kirchick’s article as someone “who has never met a Central or Eastern European autocrat he didn’t like.” Laughland’s organization, the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, for whom McAdams was a rapporteur, has been fiercely defending Viktor Yanukovych, Alexander Lukashenko, and other similar shady characters. This group believes that “Washington is promoting a system of political and military control not unlike that once practiced by the Soviet Union.” The article by McAdams titled “US Ambassador to Hungary: Overthrow Assad, Let in Refugees, and Fight Russia … or Else!” is written in this vein. Obviously, members of the Fidesz media empire don’t like the chummy relationship between the evil United States and Hungary that they might extrapolate from the extravagant tribute the U.S. ambassador delivered.
If, however, the diplomats in Washington think that the attitude of the Orbán government toward the United States has changed dramatically in the last year or so because of the more accommodating new ambassador, they are wrong. I do hope that the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest diligently follows Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap because these two publications are timely barometers of the thinking of the Hungarian government.
In today’s Magyar Hírlap, for example, Zsolt Bayer wrote an open letter to the citizens of the United States. He said that by now he’s keeping fingers crossed for Russia and that he thinks of the United States the way he used to think of the Soviet Union. The U.S. government is responsible for “the dreadful situation that exists in the world,” and all that “syrupy propaganda about democracy, world peace, and the greatness of the United States is truly unbearable.” There is, however, hope on the way: a man appeared out of nowhere “who wants to create a new America.” And this new America will give up its imperial ambitions and will be satisfied with a strong American national state. In brief, the United States will return to its former splendid isolation and will leave Hungary alone. This new great statesman who has discovered the key to saving the United States from itself is, of course, Donald Trump, for whom the Hungarian right, including the Fidesz top brass, will root in the next few months.
So, let’s not kid ourselves, please!