“[W]hen we send a person who doesn’t know the language, has never been to the country, has no familiarity with foreign policy or national security to a nation of this importance… then my friends we are making a serious mistake”. These are the trenchant words of Senator John McCain of Arizona on the appointment of Colleen Bradley Bell, donor to the Obama campaign and producer of the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful as ambassador to Hungary.
Mr McCain’s remarks have since made the media rounds – for some commentators they highlight the partisan appointments made by the Obama administration, for others they are a demonstration that the president is incapable of grasping the importance of maintaining a strong diplomatic presence in central and eastern Europe. Most of the focus, however, was on Mr McCain’s criticism of the woman who assumed her post on the 16th December 2014.
His comments about Hungary were equally sharp but were overshadowed by the criticism of Ms Bell; McCain also decried the increasing centralisation of power, the decreasing independence of the judiciary, and ever-growing restrictions on NGOs (particularly those receiving funding from abroad). He also caused a diplomatic row by calling Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Órban a neo-fascist dictator, a rhetorical flourish that saw the U.S. chargé d’affaires summoned by the Hungarian foreign minister[i]. John McCain is not the voice of the U.S. Department of State, which moved quickly to distance itself from that particular comment, but many of the concerns he raised on the floor of the Senate are becoming more common in both the United States and Europe. For many of Hungary’s European Union and NATO allies, the behaviour of Viktor Órban’s administration has been particularly troublesome.
On top of concerns about changes in domestic politics, the reluctance of the Hungarian government to rebuke Russia’s stance toward Ukraine and its opposition to greater sanctions against Russia has increased the strain on Hungarian-American relations. The perception of a shift eastwards is not going down well at a time of Russian maskirovka in Ukraine. One might forgive John McCain for his unguarded remarks, which give aggravated voice to a widely shared view.
Contrary to Mr McCain’s fears, the appointment of Ms Bell may not signal an ignorance or unwillingness on the part of the U.S. to question the direction in which Hungary is being taken by the ruling Fidesz party and its associates. The appointment could in fact be part of a more subtle American approach to dealing with its ally, as taking too strong a line against a fellow NATO ally might be frowned upon and exacerbate Hungary’s ties with Russia. For instance, the U.S. issued travel bans on a number of Hungarian officials for suspected involvement in corruption. While denying that these were sanctions, the chargé d’affaires André Goodfriend signaled the concern of the United States with what it considers to be the erosion of Hungary’s democratic institutions. Only one of those subject to the ban has since come forward to deny the claims, and she controversially turned out to be the head of the country’s tax authority[ii].
In addition, relations with Hungary may improve without a requirement for America to engage in more direct diplomatic confrontation over Hungary’s foreign policy and domestic political situation. There is the possibility that conditions may improve for a number of reasons, such as internal party politics, growing discontent, and the falling Ruble.
There is allegedly growing discontent within Fidesz itself, and concerns about the behaviour of certain party members have been helped in no small part by the travel bans[iii]. As the questions about appointments and spending come from within, Órban will have to move to address at least some of the concerns held by party members. Protests against Fidesz policies are also becoming less partisan, and feature growing numbers of young people. While many may be fed up with politicians, they will turn out for issues, with recent protests over a proposed Internet tax demonstrating that Fidesz’s higher-ups do have a limit to their power. Órban and his allies cannot politically afford to make such mistakes again, and complex gerrymandering and constitutional engineering completed in 2010 may not prove enough to retain a constitutional majority.
There is also the question of how much of a knock-on effect U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia will have on Hungary. The Ruble has taken a serious hit, and Russia’s proposed South Stream gas pipeline has already been cancelled, much to the consternation of countries like Hungary that had invested in the project, at an estimated cost of $50 billion[iv]. Hungary may well return to a less controversial stance toward its formal allies in terms of foreign policy, particularly when the supposed benefits of closer ties with Russia are curtailed by their economic situation.
Senator McCain may be right that Hungary is “a very important country where bad things are going on”, but his criticism of Obama’s new ambassador and calls for a sterner response may be less urgent. The appointment of a new ambassador is not where the US is choosing to signal its discontent. Indeed, Ms Bell has also just taken up her position, so we do not know what kind of job she will do. The US government may not be taking as strong a line as Mr McCain would like, but it is certainly not ignoring the situation in Hungary, as current relations between the two countries demonstrate. The current approach is perhaps neither bold nor beautiful in the eyes of the Senator from Arizona, but it is a subtle and targeted one.