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The recent U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing on the future of U.S.-Hungary relations was a primer in politics and international relations alike. If there is any conclusion to be drawn from the event, it is that the relationship between the two countries cannot be evaluated without keeping in mind the wider geopolitical context.
The concern over Hungary’s future direction is partly due to the increasing influence of Russia and the growth of nationalism, corruption, and authoritarian tendencies in the region. These concerns however are more about the future of American geopolitical dominance in Central and Eastern Europe, than Hungary per se. Talking about the above concerns, Ted Stahnkes of Human Rights First testified that, “the United States cannot sidestep these challenges; nor can it rely on the European Union alone to adequately confront them. They are weakening the European Union at a time when a strong and healthy Trans-Atlantic Alliance is more important than ever…” It seems that for the first time following the Cold War, countries must once again reaffirm where they stand. With the Ukrainian crisis far from resolved and tension growing between Russia and the West, the U.S. will try to fortify its circle of friends and allies against a new wave of global democratic recession. Meanwhile, Hungary is bound by strong ties to both the U.S. and the rest of Europe.
Which boils down the question for many to one thing: “Are they with us or not?”
This confusion explains why the hearing focused heavily on the nature of Russian influence in Hungary and the region. From the Democratic side, Congressman Gregory Meeks inquired whether Hungary will uphold the EU sanctions towards Russia, and what actions the United States is taking to encourage NATO members to increase their defense spending. Congressmen Sires (D), Poe (R) and Chairman Rohrbacher (R) all stated in various ways that Russia is holding Hungary hostage with its energy supply and the U.S. is doing nothing to help (by reducing Hungary’s energy dependence through facilitating the sale of liquefied natural gas, for instance). Their approach seemed to suggest that incentives in the form of energy diversification – rather than soft-power nagging about the importance of democracy – could help reorient Hungary.
Other witnesses raised very specific issues to prove the erosion of rule of law in Hungary, such as blatant gerrymandering or the rewriting of the Constitution – issues which, the Congressmen present argued, are not unique to Hungary. In fact, the members of the panel challenged the witnesses on several accounts, claiming these same issues happen in the U.S. frequently. Chairman Rohrbacher even went so far as to state that a double standard was being imposed on Hungary. In his opinion, unless Hungarians are doing something that is unique in the world, the U.S. is just singling Hungary out, whereas it wouldn’t do the same with China, for example.
This approach was balanced by the testimony of Mr. Hoyt Brian Yee, the Deputy Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, who while listing the many ways that Hungary has been a reliable partner, also pointed out that there are disagreements. In the past five years the Department of State has pointed out repeatedly the Orban government’s efforts to weaken checks and balances and to centralize power. It has addressed the restriction of media, corruption, praise for illiberal democracies, as well as the conflicts between the government and certain NGOs. Mr.Yee listed quite a few issues on which the two countries had different views; nevertheless he also made sure to point out both positive aspects of the relationship, including recent improvements. While this does not waive concerns, it is important to see that in this case several truths coexist side by side. Not all of Hungary’s contested actions can be justified by growing Russian influence, and there are plenty of things that the United States and Hungary actually agree on. This is why the hearing did not change U.S.-Hungarian relations, nor should it have been expected to.
Neither Europe nor the United States can solve Hungary’s own problems, this is not their task. Yes, the United States is and ought to be interested in keeping Trans-Atlantic relations strong, but it is not an international schoolmarm. While the growing Russian influence in the Central European region may cause temporary confusion as to how that affects their allies, it is worth noting that one of the most often repeated phrases of the hearing was that the discussion is between friends. The fact that the United States is talking about these issues is a sign of a respectful relationship between two democracies. This is why it is needed to have the difficult discussions as well. It is important to keep the dialogue open. After all, hardship tests friendships most.
–Júlia Lakatos is a 2015 Pannonius Fellow with the Common Sense Society. She is an analyst and Head of International Relations at the Budapest-based think tank Centre for Fair Political Analysis (Méltányosság Politikaelemző Központ)