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American Counter-Diplomacy on Display in Hungary 

Our diplomatic establishment is now bent on antagonizing their host countries—to the detriment of our own.

Credit: CCat82

Perhaps not since 1956 (and for far different reasons) has Hungary loomed so large in the imaginations of America’s elites.

The late Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs noted in 1993 that


America and Eastern Europe are more distant from each other than they have been throughout the historical twentieth century. To begin with, there is practically nothing about Hungary in the American newspapers, and hardly anything in any of the periodicals. (The New York Times for some years had a resident Eastern European correspondent stationed in Budapest, but no longer.)

Yet, somewhat improbably, Hungary has over the past several years found itself the object of a steady stream of controversy in Washington, emerging as one of the primary objects of the new Cold War Culture War being waged out of Washington.

Among American liberals, Hungary has often been accused of “democratic backsliding” during the 14-year tenure of conservative prime minister Viktor Orban, who is often accused of being  an authoritarian and “Putin’s buddy.”

And among segments of the American Right, there seems to be a tendency to see this relatively small, mostly homogenous (Magyars account for some 80 percent of the population) eastern European nation of under 10 million people as some kind of a model for our quarrelsome multi-ethnic, multi-everything continental empire of 320 million souls. 

Just over six years ago, in an article for the post-liberal journal American Affairs, I noted the emergence of a new and troubling Cold War Culture War being waged by the U.S. foreign policy establishment. First under the administration of President Clinton in the 1990s, and gaining steam under President Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, the State Department began to abandon its role as the U.S. government’s lead agent of diplomatic engagement with foreign governments and instead began to act “more in the manner of an NGO, picking winners and losers from among a country’s political, social, and religious life, with predictably dismal results.”


It’s a game at which the U.S. is still hard at work, especially here in Hungary where, as the Hungarian Conservative magazine recently put it, President Biden’s ambassador, David Pressman—a protege of the soft-imperialist par excellence Samantha Power—has developed “a habit of taking every opportunity to badmouth his host nation’s leadership, be it about domestic or foreign policy, despite both the U.S. and Hungary being part of the NATO military alliance.” 

In Budapest, I recently sat down with Gladden Pappin, an American academic now serving as the president of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs. Pappin, co-founder of the aforementioned American Affairs, detailed for me two wondrously misconceived public diplomacy programs launched out of Pressman’s embassy, including widely criticized billboard and social media campaigns that attempted to embarrass the Orban the conservative Fidesz party which he leads for its (popular) anti-war position. As Pappin describes it, “one of the first things that the embassy did under Pressman’s management was release a video on Twitter in October 2022 with quotations from Hungarian parliamentarians. And it was set up as a kind of game of ‘Who said it: Vladimir Putin or Fidesz?’”

In Pappin’s view, such efforts “definitely harmed the image of the U.S., or at least of the Biden administration. There’s almost a sense of disappointment that this great country is embarrassing itself” in pushing the progressive “values” agenda in so ham-fisted a manner. Indeed, according to Pappin, Pressman’s campaign to push the liberal “values” agenda has become 

the unfortunate background noise of the Biden administration. Hungarians are used to having the preservation of their values criticized. But what people don't understand about Hungary is that the more that it's the focus of external pressure, the more that it reacts negatively to it. And that goes very deep in history. It doesn’t get pushed around.

Despite this, Pappin believes the Biden administration “has put Hungary under a soft form of sanctions over the last couple of years. And that has taken a few forms. The first would be political harassment—basically a constant, irritating harassment of the political decisions of the Hungarian people.”

Still more, the Biden administration has targeted the Hungarian government over its position on the war as well, going so far as to terminate the U.S.-Hungary tax treaty as a kind of retribution for its failure to fall in line with the Washington-Brussels consensus on continuing the war.

The administration’s treatment of Hungary is based on the false assumption that the country is somehow pro-Russian. Yet, according to the Otto von Habsburg Foundation president Gergely Prohle, nothing could be further from the truth. “Russia is not popular,” says Prohle.

Prohle, a former Hungarian deputy foreign minister and ambassador to Germany, told me that Hungary has its own issues with both Russia and Ukraine, while polls show that Putin, Zelensky, and Biden are unpopular figures here. Trump meanwhile is more popular.

Orban’s oft-expressed doubts over the West’s strategy of fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian has clearly earned him the ire of Washington’s armchair warriors, yet in their pique, they seem (once again) to be missing the bigger picture and that is Orban’s foreign policy is more Gaullist than authoritarian. By this I mean that Orban and his government recognize the imperative to balance in a multipolar world; as such, Hungarian foreign policy is nothing if not a delicate balancing act, with the country relying on Chinese investment (Xi Jinping visited Budapest on a state visit on May 9), Russian energy, American protection and EU subsidies.

But that is exactly what annoys Biden and his proconsuls—even if, the criticism coming from Washington is, shall we say, selective; after all, Orban has, like his most dedicated and opportunistic critics in the Biden administration, been far too supportive of black shirts waging a remorseless, grotesque war against the little of Palestine that remains extant. 

That aside, the overarching lesson is this: When a nation veers from Washington’s “rules based international order” it will find itself the object of an intense campaign of counter-diplomacy—which is the opposite, indeed, the negation of traditional diplomacy, a program based on coercion and moral blackmail. And to carry out the new counter-diplomacy, what is now required are appointees like Pressman, who are no longer the exception—but the rule—to the detriment of our country’s reputation.