America's Hungary-Bashing Has Consequences
If the U.S. treated other NATO members the way it treats Hungary, its influence in Europe would decline.
Despite President Joe Biden’s touting a U.S.-led global alliance in response to Putin’s Ukraine invasion, a quick look at a map of the countries who have sanctioned Russia reveals the United States has mustered little support outside of NATO and our Asian allies. Even within NATO, Turkey has refused to sanction Russia, and almost no countries within Africa, mainland Asia, and South America have imposed sanctions on Russia, either.
While many American pundits might blame these countries' neutrality on the influence of Russia or China, the primary culprit behind America’s diminished global support is the United Sates itself.
Much of the reason countries stay neutral or even choose China and Russia over the United States as patrons or investors is because China and Russia, with some obvious exceptions, do not involve themselves in determining or judging the domestic politics of other countries. The United States, on the other hand, actively seeks to influence the domestic landscape of countries in its spheres of influence. And U.S. officials argue the most vigorously about the most sensitive of domestic issues, such as LGBTQ+ acceptance and promotion, which is one of the most controversial and widely contested issues in the world.
Nowhere is this attitude more evident than in the United States’ relationship with Hungary. In particular, the recent Senate confirmation hearing of the nominated ambassador to Hungary on June 23 put on full display the fervor with which the United States seeks to pressure its allies into accepting progressive ideology, and the bitterness of the establishment when that pressure is rejected.
Despite nominee David Pressman’s acknowledgement that Hungary is a key NATO ally, has condemned the invasion of Ukraine, and supported key sanctions against Russia, the rest of his testimony treated Hungary as little more than an errant schoolchild that needed strict punishment.
Pressman devoted most of his testimony to sharply criticizing and condemning Hungary. Although his testimony lacked actual evidence, unless one includes the highly suspect democratic rankings of Freedom House, Pressman attacked Hungary for its "democratic backsliding," being influenced by Russia and China, and especially its lack of support for the LGBTQ+ community. The presiding senator, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, even called Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and effectively Hungary itself, a “foe of democratic institutions and human rights.” Committee member Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey questioned Hungary’s loyalty as an ally in the context of the Ukraine war, despite admitting the country accepted over 700,000 refugees.
In the Senate committee’s eyes, however, Hungary’s most grievous sin was its perceived erosion of LGBTQ+ rights. This was one of the few times the committee actually mentioned a concrete policy of the Hungarian government, namely, the banning of non-traditional sex education in school. Even though this was the policy of most American schools until 10 years ago, including my own in the now-notorious Loudoun County public schools, the committee framed this policy as the center of Hungary's "democratic erosion." Pressman argued that this specific law was part of a larger campaign of the government to “exclude vulnerable populations from the democratic process.”
Another worrying aspect of the testimony and the hearing more broadly was Pressman and the committee members' apparent ignorance and lack of knowledge about Hungary. Pressman went on about the alleged growth of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma (gypsy) activity in Hungary; his testimony totally ignored the fact that Hungary was recently ranked as one of the safest places for Jews in Europe by the European Jewish Association, and Hungary’s Roma population strongly voted for Orbán in the recent election.
Both the senators and Pressman were quite clear about their planned response to these perceived transgressions. Pressman promised to openly confront Hungary’s government and support Hungary’s civil society (code for left-leaning NGOs and opposition parties) in their democratic process. The committee and Pressman even went further, directly mentioning working with the E.U. to punish Hungary for its supposed offenses. Although not directly stated, what these statements amount to is a plan to directly challenge the Hungarian government, which won the last Hungarian elections with a decisive 54 percent mandate, and to support their opponents in the electoral system. In other words, a soft attempt at regime change.
Much could be made of, for example, the hypocrisy of the committee's denouncing Russia’s actions in Ukraine on the one hand and seeking to control Hungary’s government on the other. But the greatest danger for the United States is that this attitude will turn allies and partners into enemies. Even if one were to believe that Hungary has become a place of eroding democracy, xenophobia, and authoritarianism, there are clearly much bigger dragons to fight in the world today.
As I write this, one of the few buildings in Budapest to fly the Pride flag is the United States Embassy. When the U.S. pressures countries like this, it only pushes them into the hands of rival global powers. If the United States wants to ensure that integral allies such as Hungary do not become the partners or pawns of countries such as China and Russia, our officials must respect our allies’ domestic political landscape.
If they do not—and Pressman certainly seems to have little to no respect for the democratically elected government of Hungary—they risk creating the very disloyalty they fear already exists. Any non-aligned country will look at the way the United States treats a loyal ally like Hungary, and determine being in America’s sphere will entail being pressured, talked down to, and often outright condemned.
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While Hungary is certainly not the largest or most important U.S. ally in Europe, there are other countries that the United States might take this approach with. Poland has often been criticized in the same vein as Hungary, and while that country's fanatical support for Ukraine has given them some leeway with the United States and the E.U., it's likely that the relationship will return to being antagonistic in the future.
There is also the potential that other, larger European countries might follow Hungary’s ideological pathway. There is a strong chance Spain and Italy might elect conservative governments in the near future. Even France recently came close to electing a nationalist president. If the United States' foreign-policy establishment were to engage with other NATO members the way it does with Hungary, we could expect a decline of American influence in Europe.
Editor's note: An earlier version of the piece misspelled the ambassador's name. We regret the error.