Mike Pompeo,Trump’s Secretary of State visited Hungary. And to our author’s surprise, the meeting was not about the bashing of migrants or demonising George Soros, instead, Pompeo kept referring to the importance of Hungary and the US being NATO allies. Dora Hegedus had a closer look at the meeting and beyond.

When a high ranking official of Trump’s America, namely Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits the self-proclaimed illiberal democracy of Viktor Orban, and its like-minded Visegrad allies; one could rightfully anticipate that meeting conclusions would contain the bashing of migrants, demonising George Soros and possibly various other right-wing populist mantras, which provide solace for those who sadly did not benefit from globalisation. To the great surprise of many – including myself -, reality did not mirror the picture presented above. Instead of setting a precedence for an “illiberal way of international alliance building”, Pompeo kept utilising the same slogans, references and vocabulary that celebrates Central Europe joining the free liberal world and NATO. He drew attention to the importance of basic democratic values like freedom of speech and free press, and he put a heavy emphasis on the dangers surrounding Russia’s and China’s sugar-coated meddling with NATO members. So, I wondered: can America play the role of an accidental good cop in order to prevent the region and more specifically Hungary from becoming Putin’s sphere of influence or China’s bridgehead to Europe?

Pompeo’s road-trip

Secretary Pompeo’s first destination on 11th February was Budapest, then the next day he traveled to Bratislava, followed by Warsaw. A major linchpin of his visit was the controversial Middle East summit in Poland, which according to France and Germany was designed to divide Europe on the question of Iran, and expose the Islamic Republic to further criticism. Instead of focussing on this issue (which surely deserves a commentary), I will elaborate more on America’s awkward attempt to exert its soft-power in Hungary, via references to institutions and values that Trump has long ago discredited. Furthermore, Pompeo initiating discussions about the rule of law and free press did not really come across as criticism against the Hungarian government, but much rather – paraphrasing Pompeo – like issues about which one would casually talk “among friends”, vindicating the Orban regime’s wrongdoings.

Some background: Hungary, Russia and China

An official state visit to the Central European country was long overdue, considering the fact that seven and a half years have passed between the last US Secretary of State’s and current one’s journey to Hungary. Moreover, the last President who traveled there was George W. Bush in 2006. Quite noticeably in sharp contrast – solely last year – in 2018 Vladimir Putin has been to Hungary twice. Although, it is easy to see the rationale behind Putin’s frequent visits, when Rosatom is in charge of expanding the country’s only nuclear power station. On another note, friendship with Russia is pretty much the only issue about which Hungary and Poland have strikingly different opinions.

Péter Szijjártó | Photo: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency Follow; Licence: CC BY – 2.0

In addition, regardless of America’s trade brinkmanship with China and Huawei, Hungary nurtures very close ties with both. Just to mention a few examples, Hungary is a stable partner in China’s 16+1 cooperation initiative with Eastern Central Europe – the construction of the Budapest – Belgrade rail line in the framework of China’s Belt and  Road Initiative was announced during the 2017 16+1 summit in Budapest. While, Huawei operates the 112 country-wide emergency help line, and has sealed last November a partnership agreement with the Hungarian government to build a home 5G network soon.

Pompeo – Szijjarto joint press conference in Budapest

Although Pompeo came to criticise the Hungarian administration for cementing extremely close ties with Beijing and Moscow – and very much rightfully so – the joint press conference between the US Secretary of State and his Hungarian counterpart, Peter Szijjarto, can be described as benign, affable and overly friendly.

Surprisingly, Mr Szijjarto neither in his speech nor in the following press Q&A accused Secretary Pompeo of violating Hungary’s sovereignty or being unjust as a possible reaction to the following lines:

“We must not let Putin drive wedges between friends in NATO. Hungarians know all too well from their history that an authoritarian Russia will never be a friend to the freedom and sovereignty of smaller nations. Russia’s not the only power that wants to erode freedom in this region. I raised with Peter today the dangers of allowing China to gain a bridgehead in Hungary (…)”

The Hungarian Foreign Minister ostensibly heeded Pomepo’s words and urged him to encourage ExxonMobil’s investment plans of exploring gas in Romania, in order to diversify Hungary’s energy resources and to ameliorate the country’s dependency on Russian gas. The only counter argument Mr Szijjarto posed was accusing Germany, France and other Western European NATO allies for equally conducting business with Russia, China and Huawei. Although, to be fair, with the massive German lobby for Nord Stream 2 in mind, he might as well have a valid point there.

Problema numero uno – and unbelievably the lesser one – is Pompeo’s gravely inconsistent rhetoric with Trump’s bashing of NATO. The Foreign Secretary kept referring to the importance of Hungary and the US being NATO allies, which sounds nothing but ridiculous in light of the President’s well-known opinion.

Therefore, at first sight the Trump administration has indeed the potential to tilt the tide regarding Hungary’s stance on Russia and China. However, let’s not forget about highlighting two pressing, fundamental problems with Pompeo’s visit, which became clearly visible at the joint press conference. More specifically, the vocabulary and means that Pompeo utilised to exert American soft power.

Problema numero uno – and unbelievably the lesser one – is Pompeo’s gravely inconsistent rhetoric with Trump’s bashing of NATO. The Foreign Secretary kept referring to the importance of Hungary and the US being NATO allies, which sounds nothing but ridiculous in light of the President’s well-known opinion.

The larger problem was illustrating the Hungarian government, despite the Orban regime’s wrongdoings as a continuous, relentless guardian of freedom, free institutions and the rule of law. Although, Pompeo met the leaders of three deeply Orban-critique Hungarian NGOs, the outcome of their discussions has not been mentioned during the press conference. Furthermore, his reference to helping Visegrad countries in their fight against corruption, and providing mentorship to strengthen independent media, came across rather as sharing best practices with friends. The rationale behind this move was to illustrate Russia and China as the evil, authoritarian other, on the wrong side of history, with which Hungary and the US shares nothing in common:

“Americans and Hungarians have always stood together in the pursuit of freedom (…) on the good side of history, which should be preserved (…)”

So, even if the US manages to convince Hungary to give up friendship with Russia and China, the price of Pompeo’s persuasiveness might not be worth it; as his tactics are not only cynical and incoherent, but also extremely dangerous.

Personally, I’d love to be at one of those mentoring sessions, where a government-funded lecturer talks about freedom of press in Trump’s America.

The unedited, full press conference is available via the following links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjsbaQS84ys  https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/02/288922.htm

Cover photo: U.S Department of State on Flickr

  • retro

    Dóra was born in Budapest, but her family originates from two tiny villages in North-East Hungary, that she equally calls home. She resided in London between 2012 - 2019, where she attained her BA diploma in International Relations (Queen Mary University), and MSc degree in Global Europe: Culture and Conflict (London School of Economics). She worked two years in diplomacy between her undergrad and postgrad years; and as Events Manager at LSE IDEAS, the foreign policy think tank of the LSE, following her MSc studies. Dora is currently a PhD candidate with scholarship at LUISS Guido Carli in Rome, researching the impact of illiberalism, and the reinvigorated V4 on EU policies.

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  • Peter cz

    Wow. A very well written piece. Thank you.

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