Time to Reset U.S.-Hungary Relations | Opinion

Early last month, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won a resounding victory and expanded his party's existing parliamentary supermajority. That triumph represents a role reversal from just a year and a half ago, when Trump-ally Orbán had to confront the fact that his country's transatlantic policies would be markedly different after Joe Biden's presidential victory. Now, it is time for the Biden administration to reach the same inescapable conclusion and cultivate relations with a country it has consistently shunned.

Orbán himself seemed to welcome such a reset when he addressed his country's relationship with the United States in his victory speech on election night—something he had not done after any of his previous victories. At least one side of the Atlantic is seeking dialogue.

Such dialogue is long overdue, as relations between the countries have soured to one of its worst points since the fall of communism in Central Europe. Until last week, Hungary lacked an American ambassador or nominee for a total of roughly four years since 2013, including the entire period of the Biden presidency to date. (The recent nominee boasts ties to the Democratic Party, Hollywood and the Trump impeachment process.) The country also was the only EU member not to be invited to Washington's highly publicized "Summit for Democracy" in December, a fact that shouldn't be particularly surprising since Biden himself grouped the country among the "thugs of the world" on the campaign trail.

Hungary, in turn, has reminded the United States that it no longer can take its fealty for granted. The country has been careful not to antagonize China or Russia, hedging its bets against long-term American obstinance. Indeed, both Beijing and Moscow have dispatched high-level diplomatic delegations to Budapest almost annually; Orbán has met personally with both Xi and Putin since 2019. Both would be happy to count Hungary among their allies.

Amidst that backdrop, the Biden administration should swallow its pride and avert the loss of an ally in the heart of Europe.

If Washington harbored doubts about the strategic importance of this country of roughly 10 million, Russia's war in Ukraine should have put an end to them. Hungary is one of four EU nations to border Ukraine. As of this writing, Hungary has welcomed a half-million Ukrainian refugees (a figure that represents 5% of the total Hungarian population) since the start of the conflict. Both north-south and east-west energy pipelines cross Hungary. American armored-vehicle companies arrived in Hungary at the time of the Russian invasion—an arrangement the U.S. government specifically requested.

For all the bluster about its supposedly warm relationship with Russia, Hungary has been on the right side of the key issues in the Ukraine war. From sanctions to condemnation of Russia to troop deployment to military expenditure in line with NATO guidelines—Budapest has carried its weight.

Given these realities, why can't the United States embrace its allies on the Danube?

The parliament building on the Danube in
The Hungarian parliament building on the Danube in Budapest. Vittoriano Rastelli/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The diplomatic difficulties hinge, in large part, on two political-rhetorical topics: democratic health and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. On both counts, the current American government is letting naked politics cloud reasonable and prudent judgment.

Both countries have held national elections over the last two years. During Hungary's election last month, the federal election bureau tabulated results just hours after the polls closed. Hungarians went to bed knowing the results. There were no meaningful uncertainties, allegations of wrongdoing or protests. Hungarian-American former New York Governor George Pataki recently opined that Hungary is a "vibrant, healthy democracy," and that he has "never seen Hungary as alive, free and open as it is now." What Pataki should have added is that objective legitimacy of process and subjective desirability of result are distinct concepts. The Biden administration would do well to acknowledge that distinction.

In the realm of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, only absolutists can take issue with the current landscape in Hungary. Members of these communities live freely and openly in Hungary. An estimated 30,000 people participated in the 2021 rendition of the annual Budapest "pride" event. In August 2021, one of the country's most prominent advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues participated in a public debate at MCC Feszt, an event covered in Western media solely because of Tucker Carlson's presence. While walking around Budapest, one is certain to encounter the occasional rainbow flag hanging from a balcony. In this sense, the Hungarian capital is far closer to London or Paris than it is to, say, Moscow or Riyadh.

Most recently, this issue manifested itself through a law addressing the sexual education of children, a subject that is equally topical in the United States. After a 2021 parliamentary law tackling the issue received intense criticism from the EU and other supranational bodies, the Hungarian government offered citizens the opportunity to vote on the matter in a direct referendum. Voters considered informational events on sexual orientation for minors without parental consent; promotion of gender-reassignment to minors; unrestricted exposure of sexually explicit media content to minors; and media depicting gender-changing procedures aimed at minors. On all four questions, 92-96% of voters participating in the referendum voted, "No."

Once again, Washington has an opportunity to discern the differences between legitimacy and desirability. The results of this referendum represent direct democracy in its truest sense—a stark contrast, for example, to a 5-4 Supreme Court decision.

Yet, what most certainly holds back a U.S.-Hungary rapprochement, more than anything else, is the idea that right-leaning populists can both win elections consistently and govern effectively in the heart of Brussels-dominated Europe. At least three decades' worth of U.S. presidents have generally committed themselves to globalist policies that are largely at odds with those currently promoted in Hungary. Joe Biden himself has dedicated decades to those same principles. He and his allies could decide to maintain a petty grudge, but this would be a mistake—by the time they come around, Hungary might no longer be waiting for them.

Michael O'Shea is a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute. He is part of the Budapest Fellowship Program, sponsored by the Hungary Foundation and the Mathias Corvinus Collegium.

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