Reclaiming Political Strategy—With Hungary
The Hungarian Way of Strategy by Balázs Orbán (MCC Press, 2021), 216 pages.
That Hungary has captured the attention of Western conservatives is no longer in dispute. In just the last few months, right-wing political leaders from six European capitals trekked to Budapest to advance the cause of family policy, while Hungary is also playing a crucial role in brokering a new alliance among right-wing parties in Europe. Tucker Carlson broadcast from Hungary for a week in mid-August, and Budapest is scheduled to play host to an array of conservative conferences in the coming months and years.
But Hungary’s policies—its robust defense of Christianity, the family, its state, its industry, and its borders—are not on their own what has drawn the interest of Western conservatives. Instead, the mystery is something like this: How has this nation of 10 million, with its famously indecipherable language, reversed its post communist collapse and assumed pole position among Western conservatives? And what in its political DNA made it able to do so?
The answer to this question can be found in Balázs Orbán’s The Hungarian Way of Strategy, a unique book whose subject is essential for American conservatives to grasp—not least due to the criticism typically hurled Hungary’s way. Though no family relation of Viktor Orbán’s, Balázs Orbán is political director for the prime minister and has been at the heart of formulating the Hungarian government’s strategy over the last decade. The Hungarian Way of Strategy is a mirror of princes describing how political power has been and should be used.
For Balázs Orbán, strategy is the heart of political reason, and it is precisely because the word “strategy” has been cast about in so many different environments that its political core must be recovered. Political strategy has little to do with hiring campaign consultants or formulating business plans (as in its most obvious American senses) and, instead, everything to do with exercising power.
For most political actors over the last hundred years, Orbán argues, political strategy has been heavily constrained. In the two world wars and the succeeding Cold War, the overall geopolitical situation locked most political actors into prescribed courses. During the Cold War in particular, the two competing powers aimed at eventual global supremacy and expected hegemonic allegiance from their constituent powers.
This “calcification of strategic thinking,” as he calls it, contained an ideological dimension as well. After the defeat of communism, the liberal democratic ideology that had been developed to provide internal coherence to the Western bloc suddenly thought it no longer faced competition. Suited for ideological coherence rather than global governance, liberal democracy tried to extrapolate itself across the world without regard for circumstances—without strategy.
If the casual assumption is that strategy simply concerns setting goals and pursuing them, political strategy is more complicated: It is the structural or planning component of political prudence, oriented toward creating, expanding, or confirming power. Unlike idle speculation or daydreaming, strategy wielded through political power also changes the circumstances around it. Thus, Orbán observes, political strategy is a recursive process marked by flexibility and frank evaluation of political prospects.
What goals should political strategy be oriented toward? Orbán first points to the trecento Italian painter Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government. “Were the principles of good government different for an Italian city state in 1338 than they are in 2020?” he asks. “Not at all! The cornerstones of effective administration are still economic prosperity, development, increasing quality of life, and the freedom, security, social order, and solidarity that uphold them.” As Adrian Vermeule has observed, these were the basic criteria posited by the reason of state tradition throughout the late medieval and early modern period.
The heart of The Hungarian Way of Strategy is an explanation of why Hungary has become the place where right-wing political strategy has reappeared. In Orbán’s telling, geography holds much of the answer. The Carpathian Basin became the home of the Hungarians 1,100 years ago, and the easier passage through its western and southern mountains meant that Hungary was always more connected (or exposed) to the west and the south than to the north and the east. At the same time, its constitution under King St. Stephen placed a unique focus on the king’s crown as the foundation of the state. Bound together by a notoriously difficult language, Hungary enjoys a cultural moat that has allowed it, for example, to incorporate Christianity while rejecting Western liberalism.
Perhaps most important, due to its strategic importance at the crossroads of Central Europe, the Hungarians of the Carpathian Basin have often been the first to feel and react to new political trends. The Austrian rule of Joseph II, for example, imposed an Enlightenment-inspired modernization on Hungarian culture. In 1956 they were the first to rebel against Soviet Communism, anticipating the trends that would later cause the USSR to buckle. And in 2010 and 2014—well before Brexit or the election of Trump—Hungarians gave a two-thirds majority to a right-wing government. Necessity, it seems, generated Hungary’s recovery of conservative political strategy.
For American conservatives, the implicit lesson is a bracing one. As the United States becomes ever more mired in a regime-like liberalism, relying on any kind of reactive populist force will be insufficient to produce good government. And as Orbán observes pointedly, “continental conservative thinking is typically pragmatic and focused on stability,” but “Anglo-Saxon conservatism prioritizes individual freedom, to an extent that is essentially ideological.”
Having become a superpower through the Cold War, the United States produced left-wing and right-wing versions of its ruling ideology, to the exclusion of more “strategic” strains of the American political tradition. Each of those versions of American ruling ideology was endowed with so much in the way of resources that both now weigh down on the body politic as albatrosses, hindering the development of properly strategic thinking. In recent years, the outlines of a more strategic view of American political strength have been put forward by (among others) Julius Krein in the policy space and Adrian Vermeule in the legal arts. There has also been a resurgence of diverse geopolitical thinking, from Michael Lind’s writing on geoeconomics to debates about proper strategy toward China.
The crucial lesson of Balázs Orbán’s book is that, although political strategy cannot be formulated at any time or by just anyone, due to liberalism’s overreach, the scope for right-wing political strategy is widening and not narrowing. “All the signs,” he writes, “indicate that the post-Cold War era dominated by a specific interpretation of liberal democracy is coming to an end. To translate that into politically correct language: we have entered the Post-Liberal Era.” For American conservatives in particular, the risk is hardly that we will go too far in the direction of using political power to defend Christianity, the family, our borders and industry. Rather, the risk remains that ossified versions of right-liberalism will prevent the right from understanding the means and ends of political power—leaving voters on both sides of the aisle ever more frustrated, alienated and angry.
On the cover of Orbán’s book, the sun sets slowly behind the palace atop Castle Hill, casting a low-slung cobblestone street of Pest in azure tones. A silhouette of the “white stag”—the mythical deer that drew the brothers Magyar and Hunor to the Carpathian Basin—stands alert at the end of the street, waiting for the reader to give chase. Will Western conservatives abandon liberal democratic ideology and follow the way of political strategy? Hungary, it seems, has already given its answer—yet American conservatives could hardly find a shrewder guide.
Gladden Pappin is a visiting senior fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest, on leave from the University of Dallas. He is also the founding deputy editor of American Affairs.