Trump Is Letting Orban Walk All Over the United States
It is time to protect U.S. interests by avoiding deals with Hungary.
When U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban get together at the White House next week, their stated goal will be making some deals. In particular, the Trump administration is couching Orban’s visit as an opportunity to sign two major agreements—one for Hungary’s purchase of U.S. medium-range missiles and the other an order for American natural gas—part of a calculated attempt to pull Hungary back from the brink of closer ties with Russia and China.
That reasoning is flawed: Time and again, Budapest has proved to be an unreliable ally, thumbing its nose at U.S. values and interests and acting against its obligations as a member of NATO and the European Union. And on the U.S. side, the pageantry of Trump’s meeting with his fellow right-wing populist is distracting from the fact that the administration is playing to its own shortsighted goals, sacrificing U.S. interests for a partnership that is no longer strategically sound.
Since the victory of Orban’s Fidesz party in elections last year, the prime minister has positioned himself as a champion of what he calls “illiberal democracy” at home and across Europe. Policies such as the creation of a loyal parallel court system and the transfer of control of hundreds of independent news media outlets to his cronies clearly violate the rule of law and harm free market competition. What’s more, despite Washington’s clarity that Ukraine’s eventual ascension to NATO is a priority, Hungary continues to block the talks, effectively protecting a major Russian foreign-policy interest. Nevertheless, during a trip to Budapest in February, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reached agreement on defense cooperation with Hungary to modernize Hungarian forces with U.S. military equipment. The Hungarian parliament has still not ratified the agreement, giving no reason.
Meanwhile, Hungary has continued to pursue relationships with U.S. rivals. In April, Finance Minister Mihaly Varga flew to China to meet with executives from the technology giant Huawei to reaffirm Hungary’s partnership with the company despite an explicit warning from Pompeo that such cooperation would harm Budapest’s relationship with the United States. Orban himself met with Chinese President Xi Jinping that month, reinforcing Hungary’s participation in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
And while the defense cooperation agreement gathers dust, Budapest has acted with impressive speed to pass legislation granting associates from the Russia-based International Investment Bank special privileges in Hungary. Now the bank is poised to move its headquarters from Moscow to Budapest. The terms require that Hungary grant all bank workers—and all people identified as bank guests—legal entry and free travel within the EU without review. Hungary would also provide diplomatic immunity to all bank governors. One of two proposed locations for the bank’s office is right across from the U.S. Embassy.
Not surprisingly, intelligence experts in both Europe and the United States worry the building may be used as a cover for intelligence gathering as well as corrupt financial transactions. Those concerns were heightened with the news that the bank’s chair, Nikolay Kosov, has KGB ties: Both his parents were high-ranking KGB officers. Even the Hungarian security service has admitted that it can’t guarantee the bank will not present security problems, which is bad news for the rest of the EU and for NATO as well.
There is good reason for surprise, then, that the Trump administration has decided to grant Orban one of his major desires: a face-to-face meeting with the president, usually reserved as a reward for cooperation and to sign deals already agreed.
Orban may indeed sign military equipment and gas deals with the United States during his visit. But judging from his previous unpredictable and anti-American actions, he may not. And even if some deals are agreed, the fact that Orban is continuing to essentially help implement Russian foreign policy shows Budapest is unlikely to become a reliable partner or protector of U.S. interests.
For Trump, the real aim will likely be deepening ties to autocratic strongmen he publicly admires, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. In Orban’s case, both men share anti-immigration lines and the common interests of undermining independent news media and international institutions. For his part, Orban is also seeking a credential-boosting photo-op ahead of EU parliamentary elections this month. He is jockeying for more power within his voting bloc, the European People’s Party, suggesting he and fellow members from Italy and perhaps France would try to form a far-right coalition around anti-migrant issues.
Instead of serving Orban’s priorities during his visit next week, Washington should use its leverage to push Budapest to reconsider its close ties with Russia and, increasingly, China. Washington has a great deal of sway over Budapest. The United States is Hungary’s second-largest Western funder behind Germany, and it could restructure those funds so that they are pegged to a crackdown on corruption or else it could earmark them to support democracy-minded civil society. The State Department also has the power to enforce the corruption-based Global Magnitsky sanctions against a number of Orban’s cronies, to ban them from traveling to the United States and limit their access to U.S. financial institutions. Washington has already sanctioned more than 100 people under the law, most recently Saudis accused of taking part in the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump, who has praised Orban in the past, might be uninteresting in putting pressure on the illiberal leader. But other members of his administration must act to limit the threat to U.S. national security. Washington, not Budapest, must set the terms of cooperation, including Hungary’s dropping its opposition to Ukraine’s negotiations with NATO and backing off from cooperation with authoritarian states that threaten trans-Atlantic values. They should also include tolerating the reintroduction of U.S. support for Hungarian civil society, which could help reinvigorate democracy. Failing to do so would leave the United States exposed to the whims of an unpredictable ally.
Melissa Hooper is the director for foreign policy advocacy at Human Rights First and a steering committee member of the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group.