Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán after their official talks in Budapest in May. Picture Credit: SZILARD KOSZTICSAK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Hungary: treading a fine line

Can it stay equidistant from the great powers while maintaining trade connectivity?

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

‘‘When I think of Ukrainians, I think of them as the ones driving the tanks when the Soviets crushed the 1956 revolution,” was the first thing I remember a Hungarian host telling me when I was in Budapest to give a book talk — my new book is called The Sources of Russian Aggression — and attend a conference. This was my first time visiting the city and it coincided with a visit by the President of China, in Hungary after a quick trip to Serbia. 

The Chinese leader delighted in reminding Europe that NATO once bombed a Chinese embassy in Belgrade. That was in a war that ended the post-Cold War tranquillity we briefly enjoyed, replacing it with a quarter century of post-Cold War supranational interventionism over national sovereignty — not unlike the Warsaw Pact intervention in Hungary in 1956. 

One man, two statues; Lajos Kossuth in the proto-communist era and the post-communist period

“Why wouldn’t we talk to the Chinese? They want to invest, when our American and NATO allies lecture us on LGBT rights and support protests in our capital,” I was politely but defiantly reminded by the same person, when I asked about the Chinese President’s lecture and its potential PR ramifications in the Western capitals.

Budapest is a fascinating city, one where state-supported neoclassical revival buildings stand next to early 2000s glass boxes and cafes, and if you know where to look, old communist apartment blocks. It is an historic city of immense contradictions: where the “strongest resistance, culminating in revolt, came in Hungary, where the claim to traditional rights gave a spurious air of liberalism to the defence of social privileges”, as A.J.P. Taylor once wrote.

A bastion of reaction, lashing out often against a sea of imperial progress

Viktor Orbán, raised a Calvinist, displays that instinct in his reactionary vanguardism, merged with the very Protestant liberalism of his formative years, as well as an outlook of international self-sufficiency. Seemingly torn between his state support for specific Christian conservatism and nationalism (an inherently liberal idea), while opposing any political authority higher than the state or the nation, Orbán battles an entity that is slowly determined to engulf nations of Europe. 

Hungary historically reflected this contradiction: a small outlier of a land balancing against forces greater than itself, surrounded by an ever-fluid political dynamic — a bastion of reaction, lashing out often against a sea of imperial progress; the Romans, Habsburgs, the EU, where imperialism is also often the liberalising progressive force. 

The younger generation is divided, a significant number of them growing up under the open borders of the European Union and more likely to benefit personally from that openness the higher up the social register they go. The communal memory is a narrative battlespace. The Parliament Square has been redesigned. Lajos Kossuth’s proto-communist black statue, finger pointing towards progress, is now at the Ludovika University campus; Kossuth’s post-communist pristine white marble statue is on the square next to the greens, giving it an American “founding father” vibe.

The Hungarian Parliament rendered in marzipan at the Chocolate Museum

Budapest retains an interesting liberal underground movement. Right next to the Kispipa cafe, where Rezső Seress used to play “Gloomy Sunday”, there was supposed to be a statue of Hannah Szenes, a special operations executive agent who parachuted into Yugoslavia and was captured, tortured and murdered by the Nazis. She is buried in Israel. Yet for a country that is constantly dubbed “fascist” by an ignorant Western press, Hungary remains an historically philosemitic land, much more than any of her immediate neighbours.

The area around the Szamos chocolate museum bustles with characters wearing ponytails and leather jackets, as stuck in a Seinfield episode; almost enough to give outsiders a different idea than reality; just enough to stir the beating heart of Victoria Nuland and possibly skewer the analysis of State Department Colour Revolutionaries. 

The Hungarian Scruton Cafe is another case in point. Sir Roger remains oddly popular as a conservative in Hungary, even when he was basically a Burkean anti-authoritarian proto-liberal. The ruling party of Hungary has tried to blend Scrutonian liberalism (so to speak) that defies supranational and imperial diktats, originating from both Brussels and Washington. But it is also married with a certain version of localism that positions itself against any version of social progress pushed by the same supranational and imperial elites. 

The Scruton Cafe in Budapest

Today, Hungary remains as contradictory as Taylor saw it. “The central event in the history of Hungary in the nineteenth century,” he argued, “was the compromise between the magnates and the lesser nobility; this was the essential prelude to the compromise between Hungary and the Habsburgs, which preserved the antiquated social order in Hungary until the twentieth century.” Thus a “middle class, the lesser nobility, existed only in Hungary; and in Hungary the intellectuals, even if Slovak or Rumanian by origin, could become ‘Magyar’ like the gentry.”

Kossuth is a case in point: his bronze bust can be found in the United States Capitol, feted as the father of Hungarian democracy. Half-Slovak, he considered himself Hungarian, demonstrating a surprisingly geographical and very modern and progressive understanding of nationhood. But it is still a deeply reactionary country that is also in love with freedom, and strategic equilibrium, equidistant from all political centres of power.

As a tourist, I did my research: Callas Bar café — moderately expensive; New York café — very expensive; Central Grand café — best place I’ve had coffee lately. The charm of Europe is in roadside cafes; and Anglosphere conservatives, if they were ever serious, should figure out a way to foster genuine competition and give tax breaks and loans to small businesses instead of college students, that would destroy the big chains and oligopolies.

Hungary is a small country and while one can debate the advisability of replicating state-imposed family values in countries as big and diverse as the United States, there are simple things to learn from them. 

And yet, geopolitical winds are blowing in a direction that would have looked familiar to Hungarians ever since John Hunyadi faced his dilemma while staring at a rising great power in the East. The busloads of Chinese “tourists’’ with buzz cuts, waving the red flags in front of the Corvinus Church on a gorgeous sunny day, with roads closed for European tourists purely because President Xi Jinping was in town would have made the front pages of all the major newspapers in the West, if only they bothered to be present in Hungary. 

The idea is one of equidistance from all great powers and trade “connectivity”. The Chinese have pledged major investment and jobs. There’s nothing theoretically wrong with that trade realism, of course. Austrian Neutralitätserklärung managed the Cold War providing a place and platform for both sides to come talk freely. Viennese patisseries and cafes were hubs for spies seeking to initiate a backchannel for talks. It was a remarkably successful strategy.

The EU faces three major geopolitical questions, hitherto unanswered or unaddressed by anyone in power in Brussels, Paris or Berlin

Switzerland took neutrality one step further, and made money out of the banking sector. However, there are a couple of major differences. Hungary is defended by NATO; neither Austria nor Switzerland were ever part of the alliance. Second, both Austria and Switzerland are socially liberal. If we know anything from history, it is that Western liberals are willing to overlook anything as long as liberal rights are enshrined: never forget the sheer ideological fervour of the project for its true believers.

American liberals, being provincial fanatics, do not understand historical nuances. Nor do they like Viktor Orbán, due to his opposition to mass migration, LGBT rights, and the war in Ukraine — the sacred trinity of liberal institutionalism.

The current US ambassador to Hungary displays the imperial displeasure towards Budapest. David Pressman is the de facto head of the opposition to the current government, in constant touch with the divided Hungarian opposition parties. 

Not that there is anything new in that. American ambassadors are somewhat old school in the sense that they serve those who appoint them, rather than some bipartisan understanding of the state. The Trump-era ambassador to Germany, for example, was referred to as a viceroy for his aggressive public outbursts pushing the Germans to spend more on their defence. It is often a temporary state of affairs, and smart countries know how to live through such turmoil and lobby the other side within the American domestic political divide. 

But something else is stirring. If Hungary’s national strategy is composed of two pillars — one, to create a reactionary internationale within the EU, and two, to court Donald Trump and the ascendant conservative-realist Republicans as a counterbalance to the more institutionalised liberalism in both the EU and the US — cosy photoshoots with the Chinese president and spicy tweets and quotes from state-backed think-tankers would perhaps be the only thing that would jeopardise that. Nothing unites a divided America more than the rise of China, the only true threat perceived in a bipartisan manner.

Supporters of China in Budapest, close to the route of Xi Jinping’s motorcade

A foreign guest and a former nat-sec man from Washington, who was also present there with me, bemusedly asked me about the sudden Osborneian Panda-hugging in Hungarian statecraft. “Where is this going?” I was wondering the same. Detached, equidistant realism from a small state is fine statecraft. Whether this is realism, is another question. At the risk of clumsily rephrasing Thucydides, Melos was an island and Athens was in control of the sea. 

Another nearer threat is the consolidation of the EU. A significant chunk of the younger generation are increasingly detached from any national spirit, different from 1989, much less than 1956. It is foolish to imagine the Hungarian youth is automatically opposed to any and every supranational empire dissolving diverse nationhood in the name of inclusion and diversity, like their forefathers instinctively were. Conferences start with the Ode to Joy and 25-year-olds rhapsodise about how their lives have changed because of the EU, with their academic teachers cheering them on. 

But what happens when that impermanent state of affairs is over? The EU faces three major geopolitical questions, hitherto unanswered or unaddressed by anyone in power or planning, be that in Brussels, Paris or even Berlin.

First, the EU simply is an artificial construct, an imposed supranational edifice. No amount of “the EU kept peace in the continent” will change the fact that the peace was kept due to America’s nuclear power and navy. European strategists know that, regardless of the LARPing and college kids giddily blathering otherwise. Europe as a continent was never united without force. 

If tomorrow the EU turns out to be a trade rival of the US and the American martial umbrella recedes, the EU risks collapsing. Unless it is consolidated as an empire, and those are held together by force. What then for Hungary’s balancing? 

The structural forces are pushing America to adopt some form of a strategic doctrine that I named “dormant NATO”, where Europeans will have to take more of the burden of security, as a former empire returns to Cold War form in the east, and American trade and security interests push them towards the Pacific. 

Under such conditions, the EU can attempt to be a superpower, thus turning increasingly imperial, crushing any localist dissent within small countries, and having a destructive trade war with the US. Or, it can come to an understanding with America, where it joins a decade-long struggle against China. Or, it collapses due to its own contradictions. None of those scenarios are geopolitically attractive.

Consider an alternative scenario, where the EU sides with the US in a trade war with China. In lieu of American military support and back-stop, what will be the position of Hungary and the Chinese investments in Europe? 

Finally, the fundamental common law principle of nemo judex in causa sua is infringed whenever any country has to fight the EU in a European court. What happens when a German transgenderism or self-ID law comes into conflict with Hungarian or Polish laws, and is dragged to a human rights court? One cannot be a part of an emerging empire, while deciding to not be ruled by an empire. Trade, military, and laws are the domains that differentiate the true sovereign. 

Other than a statue of Hannah Szenes, or the cafe of Rezső Seress, I wanted to find out if there were any museums dedicated to a chap named Orbán, a legendary cannon maker, who once made the biggest cannon of his times. The story goes that he wanted to sell it to the Byzantines. The Byzantines, complacent about their bureaucratic analytical prowess, and military fortification, refused. Orbán then proceeded to sell the weapon to Mehmed II, to carve out a special place in an emerging order.

There isn’t a museum that anyone could point me to, which was unfortunate, as that is a type of realism that is in the lifeblood of a Hungary whose geography prudently determines pragmatism in foreign affairs. There are, however, many other historical lessons to be drawn from that period, a period that has echoes of our times. One hopes that historians, both inside Hungary and outside, remember that. Happy endings might not be guaranteed for any of us. λ

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