The Cable

Orban and Trump Want Closer Ties, But Politics Could Get in the Way

Donald Trump and Viktor Orban might be able to develop a close relationship -- if their populist politics don't put them at odds.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a press conference at the European Union (EU) Council building in Brussels, on September 3, 2015. Orban warned on September 3 that the wave of mostly Muslim refugees coming to Europe threatens to undermine the continent's Christian roots -- an idea rejected by German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- and insisted the migrant crisis was a German problem, not a European one as he defended his government's handling of thousands of refugees flooding into his country. AFP PHOTO / THIERRY CHARLIER
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a press conference at the European Union (EU) Council building in Brussels, on September 3, 2015. Orban warned on September 3 that the wave of mostly Muslim refugees coming to Europe threatens to undermine the continent's Christian roots -- an idea rejected by German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- and insisted the migrant crisis was a German problem, not a European one as he defended his government's handling of thousands of refugees flooding into his country. AFP PHOTO / THIERRY CHARLIER

Of all the world leaders who’ve seen their influence in Washington decline during Barack Obama’s presidency, none cheered Donald Trump’s November 8 electoral upset more loudly than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He said watching the vote returns that night was the “most fun” he’d had in a long while.

Orban was one of the first foreign politicians to voice support for then-candidate Trump. Since Election Day, he has only increased his praise for the president-elect. Orban is eying a rapprochement with Washington after enduring sustained criticism from the Obama White House for taking a tough stance on migration and presiding over “democratic backsliding” at home.

Signs point toward a new chapter for American-Hungarian relations, as Orban and Trump apparently hit it off in a late November courtesy call from the president-elect. In an interview with Világgazdaság, a Hungarian business daily, Orban said Trump had invited him to Washington and that he told the president-elect it had been a long since his last visit, since the Obama administration treated him like a “black sheep.” According to Orban, Trump laughed and said that “they treated him the same way.”

On December 1, Orban remarked that his country, once “stigmatized” throughout the West, “today belongs to a winning team.” He insisted the course charted by Hungary has now “become the policy of winners.”

That course has seen Hungary buck the political consensus in the United States and the European Union, denting its standing in the West along the way. It has included such measures as: building border walls to keep out migrants from the Middle East and North Africa; cozying up to the Kremlin despite EU sanctions against Russia; railing against “political correctness” in politics; and embracing so-called “illiberal democracy,” an ideology Orban has used as a cudgel against media and the judiciary in Hungary.

“On a political level, Orban will develop a new rapport with the United States,” Andras Simonyi, who served as Hungary’s ambassador to Washington from 2002-2007, told Foreign Policy.

But the same kind of politics — inflected with nationalism, nativism, and a general anti-establishment outlook — that have made Orban and Trump kindred spirits could well put them at loggerheads.

Orban’s anti-establishment vitriol has at times taken aim at the one country that, since World War II, created and upheld the global establishment: America. Over the summer, for instance, he declared that “one of the principal supporters of the pressure imposed on Hungary related to immigration is the United States.” Orban believes unchecked migration will “kill” Hungary.

For some, like Simonyi, Orban’s anti-Americanism is but a cynical ploy that comes in handy in Hungary’s fractured political landscape — where the prime minister’s main political rivals come from even further on the right — but ultimately “he respects America a great deal and understands, all in all, that a stronger relationship with America is a good thing.”

Others suggest Orban needs an international scapegoat, and that the United States will fill this role so long as U.S. diplomats continue to criticize Hungary’s rollback of liberal democratic norms. The State Department already issues intermittent reports tracking human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and other facets of Hungarian political life. A top aide to Orban has called them “downright irritating.”

The latest report was issued in late October, when the State Department put out a release noting “the steady decline of media freedom in Hungary” after a leading opposition newspaper, Népszabadság, shut its doors under mysterious circumstances.

Orban needs the United States as the prime enemy,” said Professor Charles Gati of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Another potential source of friction between Orban and Trump could be NATO. Hungary currently spends approximately 0.95 percent of its GDP on defense, falling far short of the 2 percent target that Trump insists all alliance members meet. That alone could curtail the honeymoon.

“The Trump administration will be clear that 2 percent is 2 percent,” Simonyi said. “While the love affair will be beautiful on the top level, it’s going to matter how Hungry contributes to NATO, because the U.S. cannot afford to give it preferential treatment.”

Photo Credit: THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images

Noah Buyon is a digital intern.

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