64 years ago today, freedom-loving Hungarians revolted against communist rule. Their spirit inspired the Prague Spring, Poland’s Solidarity movement, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. As president, I’ll always stand in defense of democracy and freedom at home and around the world.”@JoeBiden on Twitter, October 23, 2020
Joe Biden is favored to win the presidency in the upcoming U.S. elections. He has condemned the Hungarian Prime Minister and praised “freedom-loving Hungarians.” What would his presidency mean for pro-democracy activists in practice? We interviewed human rights leaders on the ground, who told us about their perceptions of U.S. foreign policy in Hungary, what changed during the Trump era, and what a good relationship with U.S. diplomacy means to them.
Currently, Joe Biden is favored to win the presidential elections in the United States; this morning, based on 40,000 simulations, fivethirtyeight projected that Biden has an 89 in a 100 chance to win. With a historic recession and a pandemic that kills more people in the United States every week than 9/11, foreign policy would likely take the back seat for the first year of a Biden presidency. Still, foreign policy is one area where the president has more room for maneuver than in other issues like education or healthcare, and Biden, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has a strong foreign policy vision which includes a vision for Hungary.
Before the specifics on Hungary, here is the TL; DR on what we know about Biden’s foreign policy vision, as discussed by experts from Fareed Zakaria and Tony Blinken, to 706 international relations academics in a Foreign Policy poll, and Biden himself.
- A Biden administration would seek to reinstate the United States as a global leader and revive its effort to promote democratic ideals around the world. Trump quit a number of international commitments including the WHO, the Paris Climate Agreement, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, praised autocrats, and soured relationships with traditional U.S. allies like Germany, France, and South Korea. Biden wants to return to a world where the U.S. brokers peace agreements and fosters cooperation. Curtailing democratic backsliding in the world is one of his top priorities, especially in countries like Hungary and Poland. (In addition, Tony Blinken, Biden’s foreign policy advisor is the son of Donald Blinken, one of the first U.S. ambassadors to Budapest after Communism, and an active philanthropist in the country.)
- Biden’s State Department would build a coalition to keep China at bay. The threat of Chinese expansion happens to be a rare instance of overlap between the two candidates’ foreign policy proposals. Trump has had some mixed messaging around the issue, but he repeatedly declared that China was stealing American manufacturing jobs, and blamed the COVID-19 pandemic, or, as he likes to call it, “the China virus” on the country. In the meantime, he refused to condemn Chinese leadership for its systematic oppression and internment of the Uighur population for fears of ruining a trade deal under negotiation. After decades of supporting the China engagement doctrine, Biden toughened his position and shares Trump’s opinion that China unfairly subsidizes its companies abroad and steals American intellectual property. He called for building a coalition of allies to counter Chinese economic expansion in the world. A key difference between the two approaches is that Trump has waged a campaign against his own State Department, while Biden is a seasoned foreign policy professional.
- Whatever the foreign policy, Biden would usher in a return to normal diplomatic institutions, processes, and staffing. The Trump presidency was unorthodox in many ways, including in terms of foreign policy staffing, resource allocation, and communications. Trump virtually gutted the State Department, leaving posts unfilled, and eroding the trust of the department by disregarding expert advice and communicating foreign policy ideas in Tweets. This attitude seems to have trickled down to every aspect of U.S. foreign operations on the ground. Based on Biden’s track record and the list of his current foreign policy advisors, we should expect things to go back to normal diplomatic traditions under his presidency.
Hungary, the Hungarian government and the Hungarian Prime Minister are viewed with obvious respect, appreciation and approval in the White House in WashingtonHungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szíjjártó, on his Facebook, September 16, 2020
You see what’s happened in everything from Belarus to Poland to Hungary, and the rise of totalitarian regimes …this president embraces all the thugs in the world”Joe Biden at a Virtual ABC Town Hall on October 15, 2020
The two candidates‘ different relationship to Hungary has been on the news as the two candidates foreign policy took center stage. Biden recently mentioned Hungary and Poland in the same breath as Belarus at a Virtual Town Hall as “a totalitarian regime.” This prompted the Hungarian Foreign Minister to post a video telling Biden to answer questions about Ukraine and his son’s involvement in corruption before making unfounded claims about Central European countries. (…Ironic, coming from a minister who was just caught partying with an oligarch on the Adriatic sea while pretending to be working out of the Parliament building.) Finally, on October 23, the anniversary of Hungary’s revolution against the Soviet Union in 1956, Biden signalled his support for freedom-loving Hungarians, and declared his support for democracy and freedom.
What would a Biden presidency mean for pro-democracy advocates in Hungary?
What could Biden’s ideals translate into in practice? We interviewed five experts and local human rights leaders on their views on how the U.S. elections impact their work. (Some of them preferred to remain anonymous.)
Most interviewees agreed that the impact of U.S. foreign policy on the ground in Hungary is limited. Most of them started by saying that it was hard to imagine a world in which a different U.S. President, Secretary of State, or ambassador could have prevented the democratic backsliding that occurred in the past several years in Hungary. (The only possible exception being — perhaps — the case of Central European University’s expulsion from Hungary).
“It is important to remember that the person of the German Chancellor will always have a far greater impact on Hungarian politics than the person of the U.S. President,” notes a Hungarian political consultant. As long as German carmakers are happy with the corporate red carpet that Orbán rolled out for Audi, Mercedes, and BMW, Germany will turn a blind eye on Orbán’s authoritarian tendencies, and that has a much more tangible impact on the ground than whatever the U.S. president decides to do.The European Commission, led by Merkel’s close confidante Ursula von der Leyen, could seek to penalize Hungary for its violations of European values by withholding EU funding from the country, but has failed to take a harsh stand so far. German leadership could threaten Hungary by incentivizing German carmakers to seek business elsewhere. Instead, on a 2019 visit, Merkel decided to praise how well EU funds were spent in Hungary.
Still, human rights advocates and U.S. diplomats could have a much more productive relationship than the one they have had under Trump. There are several ways in which human rights advocates interact with American foreign policy in a country like Hungary, including press conferences and informal meetings, and these interactions can have a beneficial or detrimental impact on their work. Here are a few themes that emerged from our interviews.
1. The President and the ambassador would condemn the Orbán regime. #democracypromotion
“Trump questioned human rights values that were believed to be universal in the Western World. In the Trump era, we could no longer argue that Western countries upheld certain democratic standards.Stefánia Kapronczay, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union
“The U.S. presidency affects the work of Hungarian NGOs on a higher, symbolic level” notes Stefánia Kapronczay, Executive Director at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. In issues like human rights and equality, Orbán found a high profile partner. “When Trump was hostile to refugees or other groups, he wasn’t only attacking them at home,” says Dávid Vig, Director of Amnesty International Hungary. “He was validating the policies of other countries that attacked them, like Hungary.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s ambassador to Budapest threw his full support behind the Orbán regime. Two months into his tenure in Budapest, Ambassador David Cornstein gave an interview to a local Jewish paper in which he declared that Hungary was no dictatorship, and then brokered a White House meeting for the Hungarian Prime Minister. When he resigned, he and Trump called Orbán from the White House for a friendly chat.
This dynamic is expected to change, according to Daniel Kelemen, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “Democracy promotion during the Trump presidency was moribund — and it would have been utterly discredited.” Meanwhile, Biden has already called for a Summit for Democracy, and for the United States to resume an active role to promote tougher approaches to oppose autocracies, including expanding support for local independent media, civil society, organizations promoting democracy, and educational programs to support freedom and pluralism. “Ultimately it is for the EU to figure out how to handle Hungary,” notes Kelemen. “But a Biden administration could signal a position in its bilateral relations with Germany, or exert influence through investment decisions.”
2. The United States would actively intervene in local projects involving China and Russia. #China #Russia #anticorruption #coalitionbuilding
Several interviewees noted that beyond ideals and democracy promotion, Hungary is important to U.S. interests in a very pragmatic sense. China and Russia have both tried to use Hungary as entry points for entering the EU markets, to varying success. Both cases involved enormous infrastructure projects that were widely believed to be several times overpriced. China partnered up with the Hungarian government for a railway project that was at least four times overpriced but provided railway access to mainland Europe from a Chinese-owned port in Greece; Russia debt-funded an enormous nuclear plant project that it won without a bid despite the plan’s incompatibility with EU standards.
Russia also sought to plant an international bank in Hungary with the main purpose of granting diplomatic immunity to bank staffers who could then travel across Europe without a trace. Yes, it is widely believed to be an intelligence operation, which the Russian government denied. In this case, Ambassador Cornstein successfully campaigned against granting immunity to the bankers. For the most part, however, the Trump administration’s relationship to its own foreign policy professionals remained utterly dysfunctional, and even if he had wanted to stop Chinese economic expansion to Europe through Hungary, he would have lacked the resources to do so.
A Biden appointee in Hungary would have a dual incentive to intervene in cases like these. First, on the grounds of holding Chinese and Russian interests at bay, and second, because based on a recent interview with Biden foreign policy advisor Tony Blinken, Biden’s approach to battling authoritarianism would be focused on building a coalition and exposing large-scale corruption to the public. This would suggest that the likeliest group to see their work affected by a new American president could be anti-corruption and transparency activists in Hungary, who could benefit from a more frequent information exchange with U.S. diplomats and potentially, U.S. intelligence, as well as joint efforts between the U.S. and Germany to scrutinize Chinese and Russian infrastructure projects.
3. Embassy staffers would resume frequent communication with local human rights advocates. #returntonormalcy
In Hungary, the person of the U.S. ambassador matters only as much as they listen to their staffers on the ground. Hungary hasn’t had a qualified career diplomat nominated to the post of U.S. Ambassador since the early 1990s; instead, it has almost always been a political appointee who earned their nomination by making a large contribution to the presidential campaign. Obama’s second ambassador was a former TV producer of The Bold and the Beautiful; under Trump, she was followed by David Corstein, a businessman with a background in gambling operations and telemarketing.
And so, it is crucially important for informed foreign policy that ambassadors have a good working relationship with their staff on the ground. Staffers are the experts in the room. Of course, just like in any other pocket of the Trump administration, this norm of listening to professionals was suspended under Cornstein, who rarely spent time in the country, and was rumored not to take his staffers’ advice.
“Previously, we would be invited to the embassy for meetings with some frequency. These days, sometimes we don’t hear from the U.S. Embassy for months,” notes Dávid Vig, Director of Amnesty International Hungary. One point of frequent communications involves the staffers’ work on the Human Rights Report, and that work has continued. But the quality of the report depends on how well relationships are maintained between local experts and embassy staffers. This disconnect between ambassador and staffers is unlikely to continue during a traditional Biden administration with great appreciation for foreign policy professionals.
What would a productive relationship to U.S. diplomacy look like?
There was a moment in the Reagan era where a tough anti-communist rhetoric trickled down into the lives of political dissidents, remembers Ferenc Kőszeg, a leading member of the Democratic Opposition of the 1970s and 80s, who later founded the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. Gábor Demszky, a member of the dissident movement was driving with a stack of samizdat publications in his car when a police car swirled in front of him and three policemen jumped out. He and his car were searched; ultimately, the three policemen brutally beat him up. Demszky managed to fight back, and he was arrested. The dissident movement got through to a prominent member of the Hungarian diaspora in the United States, who was received by the Deputy National Security Advisor that afternoon. The United States intervened and scolded the Hungarian Communist authorities for harassing dissidents, who in turn only gave Demszky a suspended sentence, instead of sending him to jail, like anyone else.
Today, the U.S. government could be most supportive of our work by consistently upholding and promoting human rights, especially those included in international treaties, says Dávid Vig. “The more these values make a showing in bilateral meetings, and the stronger the Annual Human Rights Report on Hungary — the more positive the impact of U.S. foreign policy on our work.” High-level diplomatic meetings can be valuable, but only as long the content of the meetings reflects the input of local experts. It is more important to shape the agenda of a meeting than to meet with a high-level official for 20 minutes and shake hands. Information exchange between Hungarian pro-democracy forces and U.S diplomats has a long tradition, and it has been beneficial for both sides over the years too.
What the president represents is good for Central Europe, which is why we are rooting — at least me, personally — for him to win the election”Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Hungarian Public Radio, September 11, 2020
As the presidential race was drawing to an end, it felt like Orbán and his Foreign Minister were openly campaigning for Trump. It’s a chess move, and strangely, it could mean that Orbán is now expecting a Biden win. Official Hungarian-American relations were at an all-time high during the Trump presidency as government officials on both sides like to brag. Obama never visited Hungary; now Mike Pompeo did, and Orbán was received at the White House. This is one of the diplomatic anomalies that is not bound to repeat under another president anytime soon. Biden has already called Orbán a thug. Like freedom-loving Hungarians, it looks like power-loving Hungarians are gearing up for some harsh anti-autocracy rhetoric from an incoming Biden administration. But this way, when the criticism falls, Viktor Orbán can dismiss it on the grounds that it is retaliation for siding with the other guy.
No U.S. foreign policy will seek to topple a regime in Hungary, no matter how authoritarian. In 1956, the freedom-loving Hungarians in Biden’s tweet waited in vain for U.S. troops to intervene on their side in the revolution against Soviet occupation. Hungary may be a threat to European interests for its consistent attacks on the rule of law, and its flirtation with other authoritarian regimes who are using the Orbán administration to penetrate European markets. But for the United States, Hungary is unlikely to become a top priority, especially not in a time when foreign policy is likely to take the back seat in the face of an uncontrolled pandemic and a historic recession. Still — a return to diplomatic normalcy could be nice.
Contributed by Lili Török.
Illustration by István Gábor Takács.
For more on the work of the human rights organizations referenced in this post, please visit the websites of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union; Amnesty International Hungary; and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee — and consider supporting their work.