To Counter China and Russia, U.S. Mulls Inviting Hungary’s Orban to D.C.
Team Trump is trying to pull Hungary back from its cozy relationship with Moscow and Beijing. But it comes at a cost, critics say.
The Trump administration is expected to invite Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to Washington this month in what would be a public relations coup for the Central European leader, who has flouted democratic norms and overseen a shift to what he brands “illiberal democracy.”
According to four current and former U.S. officials familiar with internal talks, Orban is expected to meet with President Donald Trump in mid-May, though the exact dates have not been confirmed. Such a visit would build on other outreach by the Trump administration in recent months, including a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Budapest in February.
“Too often in the recent past, the United States was absent from Central Europe,” Pompeo said in a speech then. “That’s unacceptable. Our rivals filled those vacuums.”
Pompeo cast the Trump administration as a critical ally for the region and urged Hungary and its neighbors to rebuff warmer relationships with Russia and economic deals with China.
If confirmed, the visit would fall in line with the Trump administration’s strategy of addressing great-power competition, aiming to roll back Chinese and Russian influence in Europe. Critics say the administration is setting aside concerns over human rights and rule of law in the process, and Hungary stands out as a stark example.
Orban has consolidated power in Hungary by dismantling judicial checks on power and amending the constitution, suppressing media freedoms, and forcing a top university to leave the country. Critics say he has won re-election by stoking xenophobic fears of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, as well as by using veiled anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish financiers, including George Soros.
While his country is a member of the European Union and NATO, Orban has fostered a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and courted China for billion-dollar infrastructure investment deals as part of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
The Trump administration has dialed back Washington’s criticism of Orban, experts and former officials say, opting instead to engage his government in a bid to bring him back fully into the Western fold.
A Trump-Orban visit would be a boon for the Hungarian leader, said Molly Montgomery, a former U.S. diplomat who worked on European issues in Vice President Mike Pence’s office before leaving government. “This meeting rewards Orban’s bad behavior and encourages Hungary to continue to play China, Russia, and the United States against each other,” said Montgomery, now with the Albright Stonebridge Group, a Washington-based consulting firm.
“It legitimizes Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy,’ which has systematically removed checks on the leader’s power, and is likely to embolden him in his ongoing fight with the EU,” she said.
Andras Simonyi, a former senior Hungarian diplomat who in the past worked under Orban, said a meeting could be productive, as long as Trump provides “some tough love” for Orban.
“I think it is important that the president talk to Viktor Orban, but it’s equally important to raise some of the very tough issues that are of concern to the United States,” he said.
“At the end of the day, America must help Hungary pull back into the Western camp. It’s gone too far—way too far—toward the East,” said Simonyi, who was Hungary’s ambassador to Washington from 2002 to 2007.
A State Department spokesperson said U.S. officials speak regularly with Hungarian officials on upholding Western values and freedom.
“The United States government does not shy away from raising concerns with our allies, where we have them. As you might expect, we typically raise our concerns with NATO Allies through diplomatic channels, rather than through the press,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson referred questions on a Trump-Orban meeting to the White House. The White House and Hungarian foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In February, the Washington-based think tank Freedom House downgraded Hungary from free to “partly free” for the first time since the former communist state transitioned to democracy after the Cold War due to “sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions” by Orban and his Fidesz party.
The Obama administration froze top-level engagement with Hungarian counterparts and barred from entering the United States six Hungarians linked to the government it saw as undermining democratic values.
The relationship changed under Trump, led by his former top State Department envoy on Europe, A. Wess Mitchell. Mitchell and other top administration officials saw the reprimands as counterproductive, particularly as Washington grappled with growing Chinese and Russian influence in Central Europe.
Hungarian investigative journalist Szabolcs Panyi told Foreign Policy that with U.S. policy in the region focused on defense and energy, there are signs that Mitchell’s strategy have started to take root in Hungary. Budapest has signaled that it would be receptive to reduce its dependence on Russia for natural gas, a key U.S. priority. Last month, Washington and Budapest signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement on the sidelines of events marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO.
“I think that Mitchell’s policy is working right now it seems, but of course it has a cost. It’s not a reassuring message to those who are interested in human rights. But I understand that the U.S. has allies with worse human rights records,” Panyi said.
Despite the rapprochement, Orban’s government has still snubbed Washington in several high-profile instances. Hungary spurned a request last year to extradite two suspected Russian arms dealers to the United States for trial. They returned the suspects to Russia instead.
Orban also ignored pushes from the Trump administration to keep open Central European University, a school in Budapest founded by Soros. Over protests from the administration, including from Trump’s ambassador in Budapest, David Cornstein, Orban’s government refused to renew the university’s accreditation, forcing it to relocate to Austria.
Mitchell vented his frustrations in a meeting with a senior Hungarian diplomat last December, according to a Hungarian diplomatic cable leaked to the news outlet Direkt36.hu. “Support is starting to dissipate for those who believe in U.S.-Hungarian relations, we have to show results,” Mitchell said, according to the cable.
The Trump administration has embarked on a global campaign to stem the tide of Chinese investment in infrastructure and technology in Europe and Asia and has urged European allies to freeze Beijing out of 5G telecommunications networks. Nevertheless, a potential meeting with Trump at the White House hasn’t deterred Orban’s overtures to China.
The Hungarian leader traveled to Beijing last week to attend the Belt and Road Forum, where he met with the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. During the forum, Orban said Hungary was ready to cooperate further with the Belt and Road Initiative and would reject “all outside ideological pressure.” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto and his Chinese counterpart signed a five-point development plan to further advance Hungarian-Chinese relations. Szijjarto then announced that a Hungarian-Chinese consortium had won a $2.5 billion contract to upgrade the railway line between Budapest and Belgrade.
Rob Berschinski of Human Rights First, an international human rights organization, said the Trump administration’s push to accomodate Orban would likely backfire.
“Orban will reap great publicity from the trip back home, as he’ll no doubt leverage his handshake with Trump to imply that the United States supports his anti-democratic actions,” Berschinski said. “The United States couldn’t be giving away more while getting less.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer