Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Civil Affairs Association and Divergent Options Writing Contest which took place from April 7, 2020 to July 7, 2020. More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.
Rocco P. Santurri III is an independent Financial Representative and Security Consultant. He also serves as a Civil Affairs Officer in the U.S. Army Reserves. He recently completed an assignment with the Office of Defense Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, Hungary. While there, he conducted polling throughout the country to capture populace sentiment on a host of national and international issues. He also conducted strategic communications initiatives through the U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Section. He can be found on LinkedIn.com at www.linkedin.com/in/RoccoPSanturri3. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: An Assessment of U.S. Re-Engagement with Hungary in 2035
Date Originally Written: May 2, 2020.
Date Originally Published: July 20, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a current U.S. Army Reservist. He believes in a pragmatic U.S. approach to relations with Hungary that takes into consideration the cultural, psychological, and behavioral attributes of the Hungarian human domain and their corresponding political viewpoints.
Summary: In 2020, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban refused to relinquish his COVID-19 emergency powers. Following this, relations with the West soured and Hungary was expelled from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Since Orban’s death, key figures in the Hungarian government have signaled their interest in resuming relations with NATO. This situation represents an opportunity for the U.S. to re-establish relations with Hungary.
Text: As the U.S. prepares for strategic level talks with the Government of Hungary, Washington’s strategy of re-engagement is under intense scrutiny. Most political pundits assumed the U.S. would adopt a fresh approach in the chaotic post-Orban era, as the memories of well-documented policy failures are still fresh. However, a review of the U.S. platform reveals a strong similarity to previous policies, perhaps owing to institutional inertia within the Department of State. While the U.S. approach can rightfully retain some familiar core elements from the past, it can also consider the Hungarian human domain in its policy calculation. A critical error of U.S. policy toward Hungary in the 2010s was a failure to understand the cultural, psychological, and behavioral attributes of the populace. The projection of American attributes on Hungary set the conditions for misguided U.S. strategy and messaging that ignored populace sentiment. This projection was compounded on a regional scale in Romania and Bulgaria, which also resulted in disappointing returns on the American diplomatic and financial investment. Examining what led to the current situation is critical, as it reveals how these failures led to a break in relations for over 15 years. Perhaps more importantly, an objective examination of the past also leads to a path forward.
Engagement between Hungary and the U.S. began in earnest following the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and culminated in Hungary joining NATO in 1997. NATO was eager to capitalize on their Cold War victory by bringing former Warsaw Pact countries into the fold. It is difficult to fault the aggressiveness of NATO in seeking to exploit a cataclysmic paradigm shift in East-West relations. But without a solid understanding of the psyche of these new-to-NATO countries, it was inevitable that relations would be problematic in the long-run. Hungary’s history spawned belief systems within the human domain that run counter to core NATO principles.
The “Golden Age” for Hungary began in the mid-1800s and represented the height of Hungarian power and prestige. Though imperfect, this era saw the upward mobility of a large segment of the population. This Golden Age came to a crashing halt with defeat in World War I. Hungary lost 70% of her territory and 13 million citizens as part of the Treaty of Trianon. Graffiti demonizing this treaty exists throughout the country today and serves as a painful reminder of what most Hungarians see as a crime committed against their country. The monarchy, a symbol of national pride for Hungarians, abruptly ended. World War II brought more pain and suffering to the Hungarian psyche. Again, a poor choice in allies by Hungary, and another bitter Hungarian defeat. The post-war years of 1956-1988 consisted of a strong political figure (albeit a Kremlin puppet) dominating the political scene. Free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, and freedom of the press were brutally co-opted or suppressed by the state security apparatus.
Fast forward to the rapid fire events of the fall of the USSR. Suddenly the order of the USSR-inspired political environment was replaced by the disorder and chaos of a forced democratic transformation. Societal adjustment preceded at a glacial pace. The uncertainty of the new order made many Hungarians long for days past. As the years passed, the oppression of life under the USSR grew dimmer in memory, while the recollection of the order and stability of those days grew more enticing. Against this backdrop Hungarian engagement with the West began in which neither side completely understood the other. Western consideration of Hungarian cultural, psychological, and behavioral attributes was lost amid grandiose goals of democracy, free markets and open borders, concepts it assumed were wholeheartedly accepted by the Hungarian populace. The West perceived Hungary’s desire to join NATO as a clear repudiation of all things Soviet. This fostered a zero sum game mentality, a competition that the West felt was won by being the diametrical opposite of the USSR. Overlooked were the more practical reasons for Hungarians to seek inclusion, as well as populace sentiment.
As the years progressed, the cracks in the inherently shaky foundation of the relationship grew larger. Enter PM Orban, chisel in hand and a finger on the pulse of the Hungarian population, to deepen the fissures. While NATO and Brussels reprimanded PM Orban over several issues, Hungarians perceived life as better under him as the economy grew, quality of life increased, and pride was restored, while negative views on immigration remained prevalent throughout society. With a super majority in Parliament, PM Orban was perfectly positioned to take advantage of COVID-19 to give himself dictatorial powers. Few in Hungary protested. Strong authoritarian leadership was comfortable and familiar to Hungarians throughout their history. While the death of PM Orban opens the door to reintegration with the West, the sentiment of the populace remains.
With this knowledge, the U.S. efforts can employ a realistic platform of engagement. Hungary will not be a model example of thriving liberalism and Jeffersonian democracy — the edges will still be rough. Hungarian cultural, psychological, and behavioral attributes remain rooted in their history. Hungarian taste for capitalism greatly exceeds their tolerance of open borders. “Hungary for Hungarians” remains a common refrain throughout the country. A strong leader who bends the rules by centralizing power and limiting some freedoms, but maintains order and promotes economic growth, is tolerable so long as the pendulum does not swing too far, as it did towards the end with PM Orban.
As Russia lurks nearby, a now much younger nation has limited memory of the USSR. The U.S. has the opportunity to decide if an ally in the region with illiberal tendencies is better than no ally at all, for as Hungary goes, so might its like-minded neighbors Romania and Bulgaria. While this presents the U.S. with a difficult decision, the past again offers a path forward. Throughout its history the U.S. has overlooked questionable policies by an ally because they supported U.S. interests, especially during the Cold War. Realpolitik amid great power competition demands it. So does the populace of a proud country of 10 million.
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