Transatlantic relations

Antony Blinken could have been a historic opportunity for US-Hungarian relations

The nomination of Antony Blinken as US State Secretary could have been a historic opportunity for Hungary. But then again, so could the unprecedented avalanche of EU money poured into the country after the country’s accession. Both opportunities will be missed because Orbán put himself in the way.

Orbán had no B plan. He said that much. 

During the presidential campaign in the US he endorsed Trump – just like he did in 2016, before anyone else in the world, even before Kim Jong Un. 

In 2016, his bold (if careless) gamble paid off. For Orbán, not for Hungary. Even so, it took him years to be seen by the “highest secular power” as he referred to Trump as the president of the US. Just take the expulsion of Hungary’s best university, CEU, from Budapest. When Orbán did that, he had it written in the law that only a personal meeting between him and the president of the US can save CEU – just didn’t name the university or the country, to keep it sound like a law that only happens to apply to one university that just happens to be accredited in the country where Orbán’s most coveted political patron happens to be king. What a lucky coincidence. Again, for Orbán. (In the end, the Americans enlightened Orbán that no matter what a Hungarian writes into Hungarian laws, the accreditation of universities doesn’t belong on the federal level – does he perhaps wish to negotiate with the governor of the state of New York? No?) 

Biden’s election was bad news. If the US starts acting like a country again and stops tolerating and encouraging kleptocracy and autocracy in the world, that is bad news. For Orbán. But according to Biden’s first statements he would probably go further than just not encouraging autocrats.

Had Trump won, it would have been an obvious advantage for Orbán as he doubled down with his support for Trump during the campaign. If he lost, Orbán could accuse the Biden-administration of taking political revenge on him. (The Hungarian FM even posted a video during the campaign suggesting Biden should look at his own son’s dealings – a move that looks like he had never heard of diplomacy. Now that Biden won, the same FM can’t stop reminding Americans of the importance of diplomatic politeness.) 

Biden’s administration is shaping up to be a page out of the book of Orbán’s political nightmares. Not only does Biden himself know where Hungary is on the map and what it does – unlike his predecessor – having spent his honeymoon here and having worked on returning the Holy Crown to the country in the 1970s. He also seems to have a thing against autocrats. And since Russian and Chinese autocracy export has been enabled by Trump, merely stopping the enabling would make a potentially huge difference to liberal democrats worldwide.

Biden’s list for his cabinet could only have been worse for Orbán if he had included the late Senator John McCain, who also had a beef with Orbán and his explicit desire to build an autocracy. 

If Biden is bad news, his foreign policy pick, Antony Blinken, is even worse. For Orbán. 

It is disgusting when someone is picked based on his or her ethnic makeup and expected to think a certain way because of what background she is from. Ironically, it is pushed by people who also get offended when they are assumed to think what they think because of their ethnic origin, gender or sexuality. (The offence is justified. pushing for ethnic diversity because it brings in a different kind of thinking might turn out to be a big self-own.) 

But the Blinken family has more ties to Hungary than a Hungarian government can possibly hope. Just not this particular government. For Orbán, Blinken is bad news. 

  • He had Hungarian mother and stepmother
  • a Polish Holocaust-survivor stepfather
  • His father was US ambassador to Hungary
  • His family donated to the library of CEU, where the archives still bear their name
  • Stepmother escaped communist autocracy just as his stepfather escaped anti-communist autocracy
  • Probably can’t be easily blinded by the BS argument that anyone who calls himself an anti-communist is be definition not an autocrat.

Other names on Biden’s list are Victoria Nuland, who had a mutual fallout with Orbán over Orbán’s attack on the US Embassy in Budapest and who once referred to Orbán as the cancer of democracy, and Jake Sullivan as National Security Adviser, who believes that holding kleptocrats accountable can stop the surge of illiberalism. Orbán’s sudden and secretive move to carve a new method of corruption into the constitution a few days after Biden’s election victory looks like a signal that he is worried about that, too.

The US may not resume foreign policy activism, but simply not ignoring/aiding corruption and autocracy would make a huge difference. It has already started by rebooting Radio Free Europe, thankfully not as a radio channel but as a website, that immediately launched into investigative journalism from its headquarters in Prague. And that is just a website. If the US starts to take anti-corruption efforts seriously, it might cause a headache to Orbán comparable to 2014-15 when the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Budapest, André Goodfriend, embarrassed the hell out of Orbán by stating simple, obvious facts. After Hungarian authorities reportedly refused to investigate a massive VAT fraud scheme that an American company got caught up in, they turned to the US Embassy for help. Goodfriend then announced targeted sanctions against six Hungarian individuals for corruption reasons, including the head of the tax authority (according to her own admission).

The case has embarrassed the Orbán-government who went out of his way to get a friendlier US ambassador next time. He eventually got what he wanted from Trump, a guy he could get chummy with and even according to Americans, represented Orbán in DC, rather than the other way around. Whoever follows can only be worse for Orbán.

Multilateralism is back, according to every indication.  

It sounds odd from the leader of one of the smallest countries in the world to denounce a rule-based world where the weaker is gifted with at least the legal fiction of equal rights. But Orbán did exactly that and stated that he only speaks the language of force, he “only understands strength”. It put him on collision course with the EU as well as Biden’s America. 

So the opportunities that lie in a US president and a Secretary of State who know and like Hungary will be wasted because Orbán will lead Hungary until at least 2022 and make sure to be the prickly hedgehog sulking because they don’t let him enrich the people he wants to enrich the only way he knows how people get enriched – by the political/loyalty-based distribution of wealth others might mistake for corruption. 

One thought on “Antony Blinken could have been a historic opportunity for US-Hungarian relations

  1. This article contains some very careless errors

    -RFE’s Hungarian service is based in Budapest not in Prague.

    -The relevant higher education law did not include a requirement for a bilateral *meeting* between heads of government but a bilateral agreement between national governments.

    The latter was decidedly dum given the division of powers within the United States but the presumptuous attempt to legislate for a White House meeting which this article asserts was not made.

    The piece falls short of the very high standard of articles normaly published in this blog.


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