Why Can’t We Be Illiberal Friends?

Orban and Trump were expected to reset U.S.-Hungarian relations. A year later, the two countries are still at odds. What went wrong?


President Donald Trump may have rattled and alarmed many world leaders even before he took office, but with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the two seemed poised for a fine friendship, or at least improved U.S.-Hungarian relations.

In July 2016, when many leaders offered support for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, then widely expected to be the next U.S. president, Orban hailed Trump as an “upstanding American presidential candidate.” He said of Trump’s foreign-policy platform, “I myself could not have drawn up better what Europe needs.”

Just after Trump’s surprise victory, Orban told reporters, “I spoke on the phone with the new U.S. president and I can say that our position has improved remarkably.” He added, “I told him that I have not been there for a long time as I was regarded as a ‘black sheep.’ [Trump] laughed and said so was he.”

The jocular tone was a sharp contrast with the Barack Obama administration, which repeatedly lectured Orban and the Hungarian government, going so far as to ban six Hungarians — individuals connected to the government — for taking part in activities that undermine democratic values, including corruption. That raised hopes in Budapest for a new stage in ties with Washington.

“Donald Trump has made it clear that he regards Hungary highly,” Orban said.

But nearly a year into the Trump presidency, the two have little to show for it. There has been no White House visit for Orban, nor has Trump visited Budapest. The State Department criticized the Hungarian government for a law widely seen as targeting Central European University, a Budapest-based institution founded by George Soros. With no U.S. ambassador in Hungary, deputy chief of mission David Kostelancik delivered a speech defending freedom of the press in October, much to the ire of the Hungarian government, which has cracked down on independent outlets. The State Department is even offering a “funding opportunity” to “objective media in Hungary.”

All of which raises the question: What went wrong for Orban and Trump?

The short answer is that the relationship between the United States and Hungary — or indeed the United States and any country — is not just about who sits in the Oval Office.

“I think the expectations were always very elevated,” David Koranyi, a Hungarian analyst at the Atlantic Council, told Foreign Policy. Orban himself had enthusiastically embraced what he called “illiberal democracy” in 2014, and he may have thought he found a kindred spirit in Trump.

“Orban put himself into this mindset that he was an early trailblazer of sort of nationalistic populism that Trump is also representative of,” said Koranyi, who served as undersecretary of state and chief foreign policy and national security advisor when Gordon Bajnai was prime minister of Hungary.

And Hungarians also misunderstood American institutions, thinking that a change in the White House would automatically translate into a change in U.S. policies throughout the entire civil service, wrote Zselyke Csaky of Freedom House in an email to FP.

“This partly shows a misunderstanding of how the U.S. government and administration works—an assumption that similar to Hungary and the region, long-term policies are easy to change because for example there is no independent civil service—and partly was a potentially risky but high-reward bet when the Trump administration came into power,” she said.

“I don’t think Orban has soured on the president,” Csaky wrote. “I think he’s just waiting for the page to turn in American diplomacy.”

The longer answer is that a particular mixture of people and events all but ensured that foreign policy toward Hungary would not be dictated solely by the president.

The first of those people was Sebastian Gorka, who was born to Hungarian parents and lived there from 1992 to 2008, and who was appointed as deputy assistant to the president in January 2017. He looked like the ideal point man for Budapest’s efforts to get closer to the White House: SLI Group, a lobbying firm Hungary hired in Washington, exchanged emails with Gorka on Feb. 2, 2017, according to FARA filings, and Gorka met Hungary’s foreign minister at the opening of the new Hungarian Embassy in Washington in March.

Unfortunately for all involved, Gorka and Orban had, according to Koranyi, a “spectacular falling out” in 2007. “Gorka openly attacked Orban, accusing him of using 1950s-style communist methods and anti-American views,” Koranyi said. Indeed, Gorka even apparently tried to form a new party — an alternative to Orban’s Fidesz, with members of the far-right Jobbik party after Orban proved unable to oust the ruling Socialist party in elections in 2006.

Koranyi added by email, “This effort led to nowhere and Gorka, totally sidelined, left Hungary in 2008 for the US.”

Gorka told FP he last met Orban in the early 1990s. The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade declined to provide any comment for this piece.

“They were quite unlucky with Sebastian Gorka — he’s of Hungarian origin, but left Hungary with comments saying Orban is unable to win an election in 2006 or 2007,” Hungarian journalist Szabolcs Panyi told FP. In 2007, Gorka gave an interview saying Fidesz was not functioning and could not function, and predicted Fidesz would not win in 2010. Orban came back to power in 2010.

There was “obvious tension between Gorka and Orban’s people. Gorka made it clear he’s not going to be a Hungarian lobbyist around Trump,” Panyi added.

Panyi also noted that, when a series of articles ran in Forward magazine alleging that Gorka backed an anti-Semitic militia in Hungary, only the former deputy prime minister and current European commissioner Tibor Navracsics came to Gorka’s defense; the Hungarian government did not. (Later in the year, the government did effectively blacklist Lili Bayer, the journalist who wrote the stories.)

At any rate, Gorka was out of the White House in August 2017.

But Hungarian officials also miscalculated the U.S. response to the crackdown on Central European University, or CEU, for which the State Department came out in support. Orban’s attack on the CEU should have worked fine with the Trump administration: George Soros openly supported the Democratic Party and sharply criticized Trump, noted Paul Lendvai, author of Orban: Hungary’s Strongman.

“But at the same time, there was such a support for the CEU — by Nobel Prize winners, leading universities … he [Orban] underestimated the role of how many people make politics,” Lendvai said.

Third, the State Department under Trump has, to put it delicately, taken its time putting new people in place; Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell only started in October 2017. In the meantime, department officials essentially continued policies in place under the Obama administration. Acting spokesperson Mark Toner put out a statement in support of CEU in March, and spokesperson Heather Nauert did so again in May.

In Budapest, in the absence of a U.S. ambassador as in so many other countries, Kostelancik, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service who has been in Budapest since 2015, is left in charge, free to reiterate the traditional American defense of a free press. Even the grant to fund independent media was, according to Panyi, suspected by Hungarians to be an Obama administration plan, too — but one nevertheless executed under Trump.

Asked for comment, the State Department offered, “Hungary is a NATO Ally, and we work together closely to confront the serious challenges that face both of our nations. As in any new administration, we have undertaken a careful review of our policy toward individual countries, including Hungary, and toward Europe overall.” 

That funding was “the one step that the Hungarian government has clearly not expected,” wrote Csaky. “They were so surprised that it took them a few days to come up with a statement and claim that the U.S. is interfering in Hungarian domestic politics and, ultimately, in the 2018 elections.”

Fourth, the ongoing investigation into whether Trump campaign team colluded with Russia has clouded the prospects for better ties with a Hungarian leader notoriously friendly with Vladimir Putin.

“I think he genuinely expected a big druzhba [friendship] between Russia and the United States,” Koranyi explained. Instead, there have been new congressionally mandated sanctions and the provision of lethal aid to Ukraine, and it has become increasingly complicated to work with those who work so well with Russia.

All is not necessarily lost for Orban. There are rumors he will be at the National Prayer Breakfast for a photo opportunity in February. He’s also been able to take some of Trump’s language about fake news and make it his own.

“What we now see, and it’s new, and it’s probably inspired by President Trump, is the ‘fake news,’ and to publicly name individual media outlets and journalists, specific individuals, and say they’re the ones who are spreading fake news, bad news about Hungary,” said Marta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. “That’s something that, in this very fragile media landscape, is impacting journalists.”

And Orban hasn’t given up on the Trump administration just yet. Hungary abstained from a United Nations vote condemning Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there, and blocked a similar resolution in the European Union.

“The fact that Hillary Clinton was not elected was a great boon for Orban,” Lendvai said, pointing out that she criticized Hungary’s increasing illiberalism as secretary of state. “I think [Orban] sees the general international situation as favorable for him.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Orban will consummate closer ties with Trump, though. The U.S. leader is busy rattling nuclear sabers over North Korea, threatening China and other countries on trade, and browbeating U.S. allies on defense spending, all while busily attacking the media and former political opponents at home. The particular problems of one Central European leader, as ideologically similar as he may be, don’t amount to much.

“What I think he failed to understand, and this is my interpretation, is how utilitarian Trump is. And in the grand scheme of things — Orban doesn’t really matter that much,” Koranyi said.

Update, Jan. 22 9:20 am: This piece was updated to include comment from the State Department.

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin