Mr. Orbán Goes to Washington
By hosting a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the White House, US President Donald Trump has already handed a victory to yet another authoritarian leader. Judging by Trump's record, Orbán will leave with everything he came for, and US interests and national security will have been further undermined.
WASHINGTON, DC – On May 13, US President Donald Trump will host Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the White House. According to some pundits, Trump will try to use the meeting to dissuade Hungary – ostensibly a US ally – from establishing deeper ties with China and Russia.
Don’t hold your breath.
Trump’s obsession with closing “deals” for domestic political consumption, combined with his admiration for autocrats, suggests that his main focus will be on finalizing the sale of medium-range missiles and natural gas to Hungary.
Even if the Trump administration does want to peel Hungary away from America’s geopolitical rivals, it is not evident that it has any plan for doing so. In February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first cabinet-level US official to visit Budapest since 2011, when Orbán had started dismantling Hungarian democracy. Pompeo apparently demanded nothing in exchange for that honor. The Hungarian parliament has yet to ratify a defense cooperation agreement that Pompeo signed during his visit. And though Pompeo made clear that Ukraine-NATO talks are a US priority, Hungary has continued to block them, no doubt pleasing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, Orbán has been actively courting Russia and China, not least by allowing the Kremlin-backed International Investment Bank to set up shop in Budapest, raising clear security concerns for the US. The IIB’s chairman is closely affiliated with Russian intelligence, and the bank’s new office could end up being adjacent to the US embassy. Behind closed doors, Hungary’s security service has admitted that it can’t guarantee the bank will not serve as a diplomatic cover for Russian espionage efforts.
Similarly, in April, Hungarian Finance Minister Mihaly Varga flew to China to meet with executives from Huawei, even though Pompeo has explicitly warned US partners and allies not to engage with the tech giant.
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Despite Hungary’s repeated acts of defiance against the US, Trump is now awarding Orbán a face-to-face meeting. Perhaps that is because Orbán is precisely what Trump aspires to be: a democratically elected leader who is immune from democratic accountability. Since coming to power, Orbán has demolished or neutralized almost every check on his power, from the courts and the press to various human-rights organizations. In the name of “Christian” values, he attacks Muslims and migrants, and traffics in anti-Semitism, regularly scapegoating the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros. It is no accident that Trump’s alt-right-adjacent guru Steve Bannon described Orbán as a “real patriot and a real hero.”
The Trump administration’s softness toward Orbán is reflected not just in its rhetoric, but in its policies as well. For example, in late 2017, the Department of State announced a program to fund independent media in Hungary, only to reverse itself under pressure from the Hungarian government. As matters stand, the US has no formal program to support anticorruption groups, minorities, education, or free and independent media in Hungary. Far from signaling disapproval of Orbán’s actions, the Trump administration has all but endorsed them.
Against this backdrop, there is every reason to worry that the Trump-Orbán meeting will yield nothing but an exchange of compliments. If so, Orbán will effectively have carte blanche to keep playing the US off against Russia and China while gladly accepting funds from all three.
Under a strong American leader, Orbán would be required to abide by, rather than dictate, the terms of US-Hungarian cooperation. Hungary would not merely stand aside and allow Ukraine-NATO negotiations to proceed; it would actively refuse to cooperate with authoritarian states that do not share NATO values.
By awarding Orbán a personal meeting, Trump, as usual, has already surrendered a great deal of diplomatic leverage. But if he wanted to bring Hungary into line, there are still plenty of other tools he could use. Only Germany provides more financial assistance to Hungary than the US does, so Trump could threaten to withdraw those funds. He could also threaten to impose corruption-related sanctions, for example under the global Magnitsky Act. In 2014, the Obama administration sent a clear message to Orbán and the Hungarian public by sanctioning ten members of the prime minister’s inner circle for corruption.
Unfortunately, if Trump’s approach to Saudi Arabia is any guide, he will not stand up for American principles or interests, and will instead focus on making some kind of deal with Hungary, possibly at the expense of US national security. Given Orbán’s anti-American positions and sheer unpredictability, there is no guarantee that Trump will get the gas and arms deals he wants. But even if he does, Orbán will be free to keep cozying up to China and Russia, while obstructing US policy imperatives whenever he feels like it.
It may be tempting to dismiss a country with fewer than ten million people as a secondary issue for the US. But Hungary represents the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. How the Trump administration manages the relationship with Orbán is indicative of how it handles larger issues relating to national security, geopolitics, human rights, and the defense of democracy – both at home and abroad.