Transatlantic Take

Orbán Has Put All His Eggs in Trump’s Basket, but Would Be Pragmatic with Biden

5 min read
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Central and Eastern European Perspectives on the U.S. Election

Central and Eastern European Perspectives on the U.S. Election

The relationship between Hungary and the United States has a completely different dynamic than those between Washington and most of its European allies. Hardly any other EU or NATO country can claim that its relations with the United States has improved significantly under the Trump administration.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was the only EU head of government who embraced candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Facing mounting criticism and even sanctions under the Obama administration as a result of his government’s poor democratic track record, mounting corruption, and friendliness toward Russia, Orbán had every reason to root for change in the Oval Office.

Following Trump’s victory, U.S. policies toward Hungary did not change overnight. The State Department remained suspicious about its relations with Russia and China. Moreover, Hungary’s defense spending was just slightly above 1 percent of GDP, well below the 2 percent target that Trump wants to see from NATO allies. Orbán failed to get an invitation in the White House during the first half of Trump’s presidency.

An official visit to Washington became an obsession for Orbán and a top priority for Hungarian diplomacy. The prime minister, aware of the substantial commonalities between his and Trump’s politics, perceived the latter’s presidency as a source of legitimacy. The Trump phenomenon underscored that Orbán is more than just an annoying disruptor from the periphery.

The post-2016 rapprochement between the United States and Hungary was enabled by three factors: the weaker influence of Senator John McCain—who referred to Orbán in 2014 as a “neo-fascist dictator”—in the Republican Party; a new strategy toward the United States’ autocratizing European allies introduced by Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell; and the aggressive, well-funded Hungarian lobby in the U.S. establishment run by former congressman Connie Mack, a Florida Republican, and the Hungary Initiatives Foundation diaspora association.

Mitchell, who served from October 2017 to February 2019, argued that the persistent criticism of the Obama administration and the State Department had pushed Hungary into the arms of Russia and China. Making the containment of Russian and Chinese influence the main U.S. foreign policy priority in Central and Eastern Europe, Mitchell wound down State Department and USAID programs intended to support democratic values and civil society in Hungary—including a $700,000 fund established to support media freedom. He also mitigated the repercussions on U.S.-Hungarian relations that would have arisen in response to the 2017 law on foreign higher-education institutions operating in Hungary that chased away the U.S.-accredited Central European University from the country.

This softer policy culminated in Orbán’s 2019 visit to the White House. However, it did not alter Hungary’s strategic orientation. Budapest did not step back one inch from its cordial relations with Russia and China; it even rushed to offer a contract to Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to roll out the country’s 5G network.

In Orbán’s mind, the United States still has a secondary geopolitical importance in Central and Eastern Europe. Rather, the region is in the sphere of influence of a “Berlin-Moscow-Istanbul Triangle.” Nevertheless, the U.S. presence and activities in the region can be used as leverage over other powers. For example, the pledge of $1 billion dollar in U.S. financing for infrastructure development under the Polish-led Three Seas Initiatives might help to alleviate Hungary’s strategic dependency on EU funds or enable it to achieve more favorable credit conditions with China. Orbán also tried to use the potential acquisition of U.S. manufactured F-35 fighter jets as leverage on Sweden, which leases Hungary’s Saab Gripen fighters and is a tireless critics of Hungary’s democratic backsliding, but without visible results.

The Trump administration’s approach may have enabled Hungary to enhance its scope of action, but Hungary delivered where it was the most important for Washington. The government committed itself to higher defense spending and renewed a defense cooperation agreement with the United States. It launched a military modernization program that will jettison practically all Russian hardware. The replacements will include the U.S.-produced Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile-Extended Range missile.

In nutshell, the Trump administration brought strategic equilibrium to U.S.-Hungarian relations by dramatically decreasing criticism and increasing the strategic autonomy of an autocrat within the United States’ alliance system.

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that Orbán recently endorsed Trump a second time. For his regime, a second Trump term would maintain the current favorable setup, at least if the U.S. strategic priorities in Central and Eastern Europe remain unchanged. Thanks to its increasing defense spending and triangulating between the United States, China, and Russia, the Hungarian government could be free from U.S. criticism and potential sanctions for four more years. Furthermore, a U.S. financial contribution to the Three Seas Initiative could even deliver extra resources for the state-led Hungarian corruption machinery.

An administration led by Joe Biden, on the other hand, could reverse the rapprochement of the past four years practically overnight and might re-establish the critical approach and sanctions policy of the late Obama years.

However, a Biden victory will not shock Hungary either. Although a Democratic administration would be expected to demonstrate more commitment toward democratic values and stronger transatlantic ties, Biden will be preoccupied with domestic and global issues. Disciplining small autocratic Central European allies will hardly be a priority.

Orbán has put all his eggs in Trump’s basket, but he could negotiate with a Biden administration. Since a conflict with the United States would weaken Hungary’s position vis-à-vis Russia and China, Orbán would likely only attack Biden for ideological reasons in his domestic propaganda media but otherwise pursue a pragmatic approach. Initial clashes with Washington may flare up, but Hungary would maintain its defense spending and pursue a fully NATO-compatible modernization of its armed forces. There would be limited appetite in the White House for a prolonged conflict with a NATO ally around the issues of democracy and rule of law if tangible U.S. interests are not involved.

Ultimately, even if pragmatic relations prevail with a Biden administration, the extent of cooperation between the United States and Hungary would probably remain limited. But, nevertheless, if the United States takes its role as global advocate of democracy seriously and puts Orbán under significant pressure, this may be an important reminder for the EU and a real game changer in terms of how autocrats are treated in the Euro-Atlantic alliance. 

This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.