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To Win Over Hungary, Don’t Fight a Culture War

President Joe Biden meets with advisers before a phone call to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to discuss the debt ceiling, Tuesday, November 16, 2021, in the Oval Office. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)
President Joe Biden meets with advisers before a phone call to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to discuss the debt ceiling, Tuesday, November 16, 2021, in the Oval Office. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Recently in Budapest, right-wing activists from around the world gathered for CPAC Hungary. Speakers included not only Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, but also American politicians such as failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and far-right congressman Paul Gosar. 

Why did all these C-list rightwing celebrities converge on this small Eastern European country? Because Hungary has become a proxy in the West’s culture war. 

Orban and his party Fidesz became a flashpoint because of their hardline stances on social issues and immigration. The Western left looks on his regime in disgust, repelled by what they consider backward social policy. The Western right, on the other hand, has turned Orban’s Hungary into a partisan cause célèbre – for some, it seems that nobody “owns the libs” better than Orban. In both cases, Hungary is treated less as a real country and more as a stand-in for nasty domestic fights. 

Unfortunately, treating Hungary as a culture war proxy undermines Western security interests. Hungary is an essential part of the coalition that will effectively defeat the new revisionism on the march in Russia and China. But the Western left’s aggressive social liberalism is alienating the country from the Atlantic alliance, and the Western right’s partisan embrace of Orban is encouraging his bad behavior.

NATO needs to present a united front against Russian and Chinese aggression. Stopping Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression is in the interest of everyone in the alliance, and the United States needs buy-in from European allies to effectively counter China. But to build that unity, the West needs to remember NATO is first and foremost a security alliance that should put member states’ security interests ahead of domestic cultural squabbles. 

Hungary’s Unhelpful Attitude Towards Ukraine 

Earlier in the spring, the Hungarian government announced a new import ban on certain Ukrainian agricultural products. Although the ban is temporary and Hungarian leaders claim that they still stand with Ukraine, it is the latest in a series of policy decisions that have led many to question Hungary’s commitment to helping Ukraine beat back the Russian invasion. 

Initially, Orban and Fidesz reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine like most Eastern European countries — with harsh condemnation of Moscow. As the war raged on, though, Orban changed his tune. He has become increasingly skeptical of any efforts to support Ukraine, and he has been very willing to take policy action at odds with the general position of the EU.

When it comes to supplying Ukraine’s freedom fighters with weapons, Orban has been dragging his feet. He has protested that the West’s role in arming the Ukrainians may escalate the war and drag NATO into open fighting with Russian troops. Earlier this year, too, Orban suggested to journalists that he believes Ukraine will lose the war. “It’s Afghanistan,” he once said, “the land of nobody.” Of all the European leaders, Orban is perhaps least willing to aid his beleaguered neighbor.

Orban has also acted recently to expand economic ties with the Russian Federation. In mid-April, for instance, the Hungarian government signed a new deal with Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom to import large quantities of natural gas. Hungary has also blocked a number of sanctions the EU has attempted to place on Russia since the invasion began. Orban has shown absolutely no willingness to wean his country off Russian energy.

Part of Orban’s openness towards Russia might spring from alienation toward the EU. Fidesz is deeply committed to a social conservatism at odds with many of Hungary’s neighbors. In 2018, Orban banned gender studies at Hungarian colleges. More recently, he condemned what he called the EU’s “gender insanity” and said that “there is such a gap between our two positions that I do not see how it can be bridged.” 

Orban’s government has no interest in fighting a war for social liberalism. Insofar as Western media has portrayed the war in Ukraine as simply a war against Russian reactionaries, it pushes Orban and Fidesz further and further away from the Atlantic alliance’s goal of a united Europe. Many Hungarians feel threatened by the EU’s liberalism, and their fears of anti-traditional policies imposed by Brussels only grow as they listen to Western political figures expound specific narratives about Ukraine.

Unfortunately, Russia is not the only rival of the West with which the Orban regime has gotten cozy. In recent years, the Hungarians have taken steps to improve relations with the People’s Republic of China. In too many regards, Hungary is becoming China’s chief foothold in Eastern Europe.

China’s efforts to expand their influence in Hungary are primarily economic. In 2024, for instance, there are plans to open a Budapest campus for Fudan University, one of China’s leading educational institutions. And in 2019, Orban rebuffed American efforts to remove Huawei from Hungary’s 5G network. On top of that, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is funding a railway between Budapest and Belgrade, arguably the most important BRI project in Europe. 

All told, it seems apparent that the Orban regime is pivoting Hungary away from Atlanticist institutions and the United States in favor of closer relationships with authoritarian powers such as Russia and China. For anyone concerned with the unity of NATO or European security, these moves are unacceptable. The response from Western leaders, however, has been highly ineffective at best and detrimental at worst.

The West’s Problematic Response

Leaders in the West have reacted to the Orban regime in two primary ways. On the left, moral outrage at Fidesz’s social conservatism and unhelpful position on Ukraine has inspired resentment that bleeds over into policy. On the right, a worrying number of influential writers and politicians have expressed a strange admiration for Orban’s government. Neither approach is a viable path for NATO, and both should be rejected.

In February, the Biden administration dispatched USAID administrator Samantha Power to Hungary. According to the official readout of her trip, Power met with various groups disaffected with Orban’s government and encouraged these “marginalized groups in their struggle for equality.” In many ways, her trip is emblematic of the way some Western policymakers have treated Orban — with contempt and open hostility. Rather than attempting to bridge the growing divide, many act as though Orban is a fascist dictator who needs to be overthrown by some kind of revolutionary people’s movement.

Relations between the U.S. and Hungary have become so frosty over the past few years that recently leaked documents suggest Orban’s party views the U.S. as a “top three adversary.”  This is not a sustainable trend. As China, Iran, and Russia throw the world deeper and deeper into chaos, NATO needs to stand together and defend the world order. It cannot accomplish that if its members are reduced to this kind of bitter infighting.

Equally problematic, though, is the Western right’s partisan embrace of Viktor Orban. Demagogues such as former Fox News host Tucker Carlson have lauded Orban’s heavy-handed leadership as a model for Western conservatives to embrace themselves. Carlson has conducted several interviews with Orban, and even broadcast his nightly Fox News show from Budapest  for a period in 2022. He seems to particularly enjoy when Orban says nasty things about U.S. President Joe Biden and other Democrats.

A more intellectual group of American right-wingers has also embraced Orban as a hero. Gladden Pappin, a cofounder of populist policy journal American Affairs, is so enamored with Hungary that he accepted a role as the next president of the Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs. In his words, “the institute will inform Viktor Orban’s foreign policy decisions, while articulating Hungary’s perspective internationally.”

Pappin’s fawning admiration for the Orban regime is not unusual in his corners of the American right. Prominent right-wing author Rod Dreher, who relocated to Hungary recently, once asked readers: “would you rather live in a society governed by Viktor Orban, or Joe Biden, who once called Orban a ‘thug?’” Dreher went on to write, “if we on the Right don’t get an American version of Orban soon, it’s going to be Bidens (including Republican Bidens like Larry Hogan) all the way down to the society’s dissolution.”

These right-wing activists are unnecessarily giving Orban cover to act in ways inconvenient to American interests. By hosting events such as CPAC Hungary, they give Orban’s poor geopolitical choices a legitimacy they do not deserve. They are putting short-term domestic disputes ahead of long-term national security interests.

The American right and left have both turned Hungary into a mirror for domestic culture wars. Rather than honestly assess Hungary’s role in the U.S.’ global strategy, both sides have decided to treat the country like a partisan football. This is a pathological way to think about American foreign policy.

A Better Path

Instead of approaching U.S. relations with Hungary as either a moralistic crusade or a partisan opportunity, American leaders should prioritize their country’s genuine interests. The U.S. needs Ukraine to defeat Russia, and a Russian defeat will only come if Europe is unified in supporting the war effort. Like it or not, Hungary is a piece of the puzzle that cannot be ignored.

NATO is a security alliance. It does not exist to spread liberalism around the world. It does not exist to promote specific candidates in national or local elections. It does not exist to ensure countries adopt specific domestic policies. It exists solely to protect the national security interests of its member states.

Under Orban’s regime, Hungary has absolutely made a number of decisions that impair NATO’s national security mission. Its diplomatic and economic ties to aggressor states such as China and Russia are growing, and the role Orban has decided to play in the Ukraine conflict is disruptive. These trends are unacceptable, and NATO should take steps to bring Hungary back into line with other member states.

But Orban’s regime cannot be browbeaten into better policy choices. Rather, NATO leaders should do the difficult work of showing Orban that defeating Russia and eliminating malign Chinese influence in Europe would serve the interests of his country just as much as other members of the alliance. The Orban regime needs to understand that a world where neo-imperialist aggressors can take what they want by force is not a world that benefits Hungary.

Winning Hungary back for NATO might mean making concessions on issues such as immigration, or offering to replace investments made by authoritarian regimes with investments from Western countries. Unpalatable as these options may be, victory in Ukraine should be important enough for EU and U.S. leaders that they at least consider persuading Hungary with carrots instead of sticks. 

Regardless of any significant policy changes, when American diplomats and national security professionals speak to the Hungarians, it should be in a spirit of mutual cooperation, not antagonism. Keeping relations with Hungary rational and free of the bias inspired by domestic culture wars is essential. Orban would respect an attitude of cold, calculating realism far more than the left’s hysterical idealism or the right’s simpering partisanship.

America’s greatest statesman, George Washington, understood that viewing foreign affairs through the lens of domestic politics was a recipe for disaster. “The nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave,” he wrote in his Farewell Address. “It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.” Washington knew that party politics and factionalism could distort foreign policy in catastrophic ways. Americans would do well to heed his wisdom today.

Frustrating as Hungary’s intransigence is for Western policymakers, it should serve as a wake-up call. Despite the appearance of unity, the Western alliance is fragile. Even outside of Hungary and the U.S., domestic politics could hinder support for the brave Ukrainian freedom fighters. Figuring out how to bring Hungary back into the fold would be good preparation for the even more difficult task of holding together the war effort as it limps into its second year.

Michael Lucchese is the founder of Pipe Creek Consulting, a communications firm based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was a communications aide to U.S. Senator Ben Sasse. He graduated from Hillsdale College in 2018, and in 2017 was a Political Studies Fellow at the Hudson Institute. His writing has also appeared in National Review, the Washington Examiner, and several other publications.

Written By

Michael Lucchese is the founder of Pipe Creek Consulting, a communications firm based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was a communications aide to U.S. Senator Ben Sasse. He graduated from Hillsdale College in 2018, and in 2017 was a Political Studies Fellow at the Hudson Institute. His writing has also appeared in National Review, the Washington Examiner, and several other publications.