December 21, 2023 | National Review

Viktor Orbán Is No Friend of America

Since his arrival in power in 2010, he has been openly laying the groundwork for the end of the American-led unipolar world.
December 21, 2023 | National Review

Viktor Orbán Is No Friend of America

Since his arrival in power in 2010, he has been openly laying the groundwork for the end of the American-led unipolar world.

Call it bluster or statesmanship, Viktor Orbán’s pugnacity, which was on full display at the most recent European Council meeting, has not made him many friends in Europe. Even the “populist” right — from Italythrough Swedento Finland — is increasingly aware of the threat posed to the continent by Russia and sees Hungary’s obstructionism as toxic.

American conservatives, in contrast, are cutting the Hungarian strongman far more slack. Not only do they see Orbán as a defender of the West against the onslaught of woke ideology, many seem also attuned to his view of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Just last week, as Volodymyr Zelensky was visiting Washington, Hungarian political operatives were in town, too, to dissuade Republican legislators from supporting Ukraine.

Orbán’s bag of tricks is becoming worn. The talk of “traditional values,” for example, meant to establish bona fides among American conservatives, is a method taken out of the Kremlin’s playbook — and it is just as phony as in the case of Russia, a country with some of the highest abortion and divorce rates in the world.

Whatever Orbán’s rhetoric while abroad, Hungary counts among the most secular nations in Europe. According to a Pew survey, monthly worship attendance is only 17 percent and only 14 percent of the population report that religion is very important in their lives.

More important, however, Orbán’s American interlocutors must confront the fact that under his watch Hungary has become a thoroughly unreliable partner for the United States. Unlike in nearby Poland, where increasing global instability and the looming Russian threat have fostered a consensus about the importance of the country’s relationship with the United States, successive Orbán governments have sought to serve both Chinese and Russian interests — in the hope of benefiting from the disorder that would follow America’s eventual loss of interest in Europe.

Hungary has been a “pillar of the Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), to use Orbán’s own words. During the pandemic, Hungary was the only country in the EU to embark on a mass vaccination of its population against Covid-19 using the Chinese-made (and largely ineffective) Sinopharm vaccine. Famously, Orbán rebuked the Trump administration’s warnings over security risks posed by Huawei. The Chinese giant also established an R & D center in Budapest in 2020. Around the same time, Orbán tried to lure Shanghai’s Fudan University to open a campus in Hungary — a project that was abandoned when the public staged mass protests over the costs, exceeding annual funding to all public universities in Hungary combined.

Then there are Hungary’s extensive links to Russia, especially in the area of energy. Unlike other European countries that have tried to move away from Russian sources of natural gas and oil after 2022, Hungary has doubled down on its long-term contracts. Meanwhile, the Russian nuclear-energy monopolist, Rosatom, is building another block of Hungary’s nuclear-power plant in Paks.

For years, Orbán has made it a habit to block new waves of EU sanctions against Russia — usually to extract more money from Brussels — as well as to keep Ukraine from attending NATO summits. The International Investment Bank, a Russian-led multilateral bank and a vehicle for espionage and sanctions-evasion, even moved its headquarters to Budapest in 2019 — forced out only under the threat of U.S. sanctions after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. Ironically, while Orbán complains that “Ukraine is known to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world,” Hungary under his watch is suffering from the worst public-sector-corruption record in the EU.

Besides the grift that chimes well with Russian and Chinese business deals, there is yet a darker undertone to Orbán’s geopolitics. In 1920, the Trianon Treaty radically downsized Hungary’s territory and left millions of ethnic Hungarians stranded in neighboring countries. The resulting grievance has been central to Orbán’s political project. “We will never forget that they did this,” he said of the Western powers at a commemoration of the treaty’s centenary, adding that “we will be there at the funeral of those who wanted to put us in the grave.”

Do musings about “Greater Hungary” sound delusional? In that 2020 speech, Orbán called on the young people, “the fifth generation after Trianon,” to fight “the decisive battle” to undo its injustice. Meanwhile, his government has been buying historic real estate in ethnically mixed areas in Slovakia. It has also used the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia as a pawn to blackmail Ukraine.

When people tell you openly what they want, it is worth taking them seriously. In Orbán’s case, the aim is clear: to seize opportunistically on the present global instability to weaken and destabilize Hungary’s neighbors, in the hope that his partnership with Russia and China will give him the upper hand in a post-American world.

Some Americans may still see Orbán as a like-minded friend. Since his arrival in power in 2010, however, he has been openly laying the groundwork for the end of the American-led unipolar world, rooting for the arrival of a new “multipolar era.” With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Ivana Stradner is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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