Taking the Long View: Viktor Orbán and Realpolitik | Opinion

It is increasingly difficult to find political leaders who exhibit a humble recognition of the world's manifold complexities. Hubris seems far more commonplace, particularly among today's Western leaders, who seem to eschew careful, long-term strategic thinking. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary seems to be a rare exception.

Along with 15 other American and European journalists and publishers, I had a chance recently to spend two hours in discussions with the widely vilified prime minister. In a sparsely decorated but elegant room in the former Carmelite Monastery that serves as the prime minister's seat, Orbán articulated his views on a number of contentious issues.

The energetic prime minister spoke with ease, humor, and candor. I furiously took notes as he spoke extemporaneously, and—this being my first meeting with him—was impressed by his ability to quickly analyze events from different perspectives, transitioning from tangible politics to philosophical abstraction with ease. It was dazzling—and I quickly remembered something a friend had said before the meeting: "If this is your first meeting with Orbán, then you are in for quite a surprise!"

Surprised I was—Orbán showed himself to be something quite different from what the mainstream media and the international community say he is. He spoke clearly, confidently, and creatively about some of the most intractable geopolitical problems of today. And what came through was a sophisticated approach to political strategy—with a wellspring of common sense that is rare among leaders today. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is a similarly endangered species.

Orbán's frank discussion of the war in Ukraine, for example, reflected a deep, nuanced, and historically informed understanding of Russian behavior, motivations, and tactics. He noted that being isolated by the West is not necessarily unwelcome by the Russians, and that Moscow takes the long view on all pressing geopolitical matters. This is something that the West seems to have trouble doing in its own dealings with both Russia and the Islamic world—civilizations that think in terms of millennia, not months or even mere years.

By comparison, many Western leaders seem like strategic neophytes. They are so wedded to preconceived tactics or short-term approaches that they have locked themselves into a dangerous, predetermined path. The West, Orbán said, now seems to be hurtling down this path without an ability to adjust its course, despite changing circumstances. The West is not "nimble," to use a term favored by business schools.

"War," Orbán said, "creates new realities" with which good leaders must then grapple. But if a leader dispenses with strategic frameworks and instead merely asserts that he is on the "right side of history," for example, he has succumbed to what Daniel Bell called "the trap of ideology." That is why "competing interpretations are needed," Orbán said. (Here, I thought at the time, was a master class in realpolitik.)

Orbán's comments reminded me of something Henry Kissinger said in a 2012 interview: "The American tendency is to wait for a problem to arise and then to overwhelm it with resources or with some pragmatic answers. But what you need is a framework of decisions [emphasis mine] that help you understand where you're trying to go."

Unfortunately, the West doesn't really know where it wants to go today regarding the war in Ukraine, and is letting itself be inexorably drawn into something that could prove far more dangerous than what it had bargained for. "If you do not set boundaries in a conflict," Orbán said, "you will be dragged into it."

In other comments—which were mostly on-the-record but which, nevertheless, do not lend themselves to "hot takes" or quick sound bites—Orbán underscored the importance of finding a political strategy and building and forming alliances that "provide [Hungary with] the highest degree of sovereignty," he said.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban reacts as
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban reacts as he addresses an annual press conference in Budapest on December 21, 2022, prior to the government's last meeting of the year 2022. ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

Such alliance-building has become especially important, as Hungary continues to be black-listed by the European Union—most recently, by being excluded from the Erasmus scholarship program—and shunned by academic institutions, with Hungarian scholars increasingly disinvited or excluded from major conferences.

The animosity between Hungary and the EU stems from fundamental differences in their "cultural coordination system," as Orbán put it—differences rooted in divergent views of man, society, and the world. This has consequences across many areas of policy—migration, marriage, family—with great pressure exerted by narrow interest groups to change the Central European country's more traditional views. "Everything that was bad over the last 30 years is now embodied in Brussels," he noted.

Amid such powerful adversity, the only way forward is to form cross-border alliances. The victory of Giorgia Meloni as new prime minister of Italy on September 25 of last year, Orbán said, was thus "a game-changer." Meloni showed what could be achieved by working together at the national level—and her government initially offered hope for international efforts to build up a "competitive conservative Right," Orbán said. But with lingering tensions over the Russo-Ukraine war, such efforts have slowed down, he said wistfully, dividing otherwise-natural allies on the Right. Any emerging "system of alliances was crushed by the war."

The prime minister also spoke rather candidly about religion. He acknowledged the crumbling of Christianity worldwide, a phenomenon that he saw as having its origins in both the political and the personal. But "Christianity cannot be regenerated by politics." Its revival can only occur with a personal transformation—a renewal of one's inner life.

In fact, he was quite clear about the need for all action—political and otherwise—to be rooted in the spiritual. "I don't believe in conservative political values without faith." His own deep and abiding Christian faith—Calvinist, in his case—is strong. And he sagely told the group that in the face of adversity and political attacks, one has to be courageous and "make iron of your spirit." Without such personal fortitude, one will inevitably crumble in the face of an aggressive opposition. "If you are not convinced by your values and their validity, don't start a counter-revolution [of the kind] in which I am involved." If one is not ready for such a struggle, in other words, one will not survive.

This is sound counsel to conservatives everywhere—and a timely reminder that the political struggles of our age require courage, firmness, and sacrifice. More than anything, however, they require the rational analysis of grand strategy, of which Orbán seems to be a master.

For someone with an academic bent like me, to listen to Orbán speak extensively about this intellectual dimension of politics—which he especially enjoys—was particularly exciting. His comments revealed how much he relishes the challenge of processing complex information and thinking through the prudent use of power—something too often absent in lesser politicians.

It is no wonder why myriad functionaries in Brussels and Washington have Orbán and his conservative government in their crosshairs: They cannot abide such raw political talent. Meanwhile, the rest of us have much to learn from the longest-serving prime minister in Europe. Don't believe the mainstream media's negative hype.

Alvino-Mario Fantini is the editor-in-chief of The European Conservative quarterly and website. He writes from Vienna, Austria.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.