Viktor Orban and Realism
One of those European leaders pictured above understands the world as it is. It's not the leader of the stronger, richer, bigger country.
Everybody in the national security class and allied journalists are thrilled by the recent Ukrainian victories on the battlefield. In one sense, it's hard not to be. Russia deserves to have its nose bloodied, and worse, for what it has done to Ukraine. Watching videos of Ukrainians exhuming bodies from the mass graves of Izyum is to bear witness to Moscow's evil.
And yet, we would be moralistic fools to believe that this war is some kind of novel, where the plot can be wrapped up tidily. Remember how great it felt to watch Iraqi mobs tear down the statue of the tyrant Saddam in the immediate aftermath of the US victory in 2003? Would that that had been the last chapter! But we know what happened next -- and it discredited the entire US nation-building mission. It turns out that all the money and all the firepower in the world cannot create a peaceful liberal democracy out of people who either don't want it or don't have the capacity for it. When idealism crashes into reality, you get tragedy.
This, I think, is where the West is headed with Ukraine. It's where we have been headed since virtually the beginning -- and alone among Western statesmen, Hungary's Viktor Orban has grasped the reality of all this. He gave a brief interview recently to Sohrab Ahmari, who wrote it up here. Excerpt:
“If someone believes you can beat Russia, and change things in Moscow, it is a pure mistake,” Orbán told his party’s grandees in Kötcse, speaking forthrightly about the war’s military endgame.
His attitude isn’t born of any deep love for Moscow—impossible, given half a century of Soviet occupation and the premier’s belief that Russian civilization is fundamentally different from Europe’s. Rather, it comes from the realism and cold rationality that Hungary’s historical and geographic circumstances have imposed on her.
Realism: The Russians have utterly confounded the energy sanctions’ intended effects, whether by selling their reserves to the Chinese, who then resell to the Europeans at a markup, or by simply selling less of the stuff at higher prices created by sanctions. In the event, the war and the sanctions have buoyed the ruble to historic highs.
Realism: Seeking to beggar their giant neighbor to the east, the Europeans have beggared … themselves. Fuel lines are now a common sight in Poland and elsewhere. Manufacturers have shuttered production in Germany and across much of Northern Europe. Energy bills are already unsustainable for British small businesses, and winter isn’t even here yet.
Realism: Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary very much included, risk serious developmental backsliding, just when the region is poised to become a net contributor to the EU budget. As Orbán said to me, “the war and the sanctions prosecuted by the West will cause the region to lose all the gains it’s made relative to Western Europe.”
All this raises a vexing question for American policymakers—at least those willing to listen, rather than mindlessly dismiss Orbán as “illiberal.” Is the United States really prepared to see Europe turn itself into an energy and economic basket case for no tangible gains against Moscow? Would it be desirable for millions of German workers laboring in high-end manufacturing to join jobless rolls? Is mass Polish poverty worth appeasing Warsaw’s insane and hopeless determination to fight an apocalyptic war against Russia on Ukrainian soil?
Orban has never justified Russia's invasion, but he has said repeatedly that the West should be pushing for some sort of negotiated peace settlement between Kyiv and Moscow, before the war expands into a much bigger conflagration. This is not a proposal that feels good -- what feels good is to stick it to the Russian aggressor -- but it is a proposal that has the virtue of keeping Europe, America, and Russia from stumbling into a far, far worse situation.
This week at the NatCon conference in Miami, a wealthy American observer, upon hearing that I'll be moving to Budapest this fall to work at the Danube Institute, said that I was lucky to be headed to a country governed by a man who cares more about his own people than he does about the European Union's ideology. This was just before an EU committed declared that Hungary is no longer a democracy, but rather an "electoral autocracy," for various reasons, including its law preventing the propagandizing of children with LGBT ideology. According to Brussels, when Hungarians vote for Orban's party -- as they overwhelmingly did this spring -- it's not a democratic act. Funnily enough, in the city of Budapest, which is a majority-left city, Brussels sees no problem with democracy there.
This is what the Eurocrats did a couple of decades ago when recalcitrant European national populations balked at the EU project: declared the vote rejecting the EU invalid, and keep voting until the population chooses correctly, then -- whaddaya know! -- democracy!
You watch, my fellow Americans: this is the same playbook that the ruling class is going to use against us in the near future. Whenever elections produce results that the elites don't like, it will be declared undemocratic -- and those who advocate for the winning side will be deemed by Washington and the tech and financial elites as "threats to democracy." You saw the Biden speech. It's coming.
The same European leadership class that declares Hungary to be no longer democratic, because the Hungarian people have the audacity to want to believe they should run their own affairs, has also led the self-destructive crusade to punish Russia for its Ukraine imperialism. Two things can be true at the same time: that Russia was wicked to invade Ukraine, and that continuing to push this proxy war with Russia is likely to destroy Europe economically, or worse. Later this terrible winter, when vast crowds of cold and angry Europeans fill the streets of European capitals, demanding the heads of the leaders who brought them into this dark wood, Viktor Orban will be seen as the only statesman who saw what Europe was doing to itself, and tried to stop its collective suicide.
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Or, more darkly, the European ruling class and the media will attempt to make him and Hungary a scapegoat for their total failure.
I strongly encourage my American readers to pay more attention to this story (and also to subscribe to the pungent and provocative Substack newsletter of the Croatian right-of-center analyst Niccolo Soldo). The United States, by pushing European governments to go balls-to-the-wall against Russia, is creating among European populations an immensely powerful reserve of anti-Americanism. It may be the case that certain European countries were foolish to have allowed themselves to become so dependent on Russian energy supplies, but wagging our Yankee fingers at the Europeans and demanding that they freeze in the dark to punish Russia is not going to be a popular position among European publics when the lights go out and the heat turns off in January.
If Orban is right, and Central Europe loses thirty years of economic growth because of this Washington-and-Brussels-led aggression towards Russia, what kind of sentiment towards America do you think will emerge from those peoples? Do you think elites condemning them as Not Democratic will matter one damn bit?