By Andrew MacDowall
Cracks in the Relationship
Despite Trump’s apparent fondness for strongmen like Orbán, the awkwardness of certain elements of the U.S.-Hungarian relationship are hard to gloss over.
For example, while Trump has been criticized for undermining democracy and attacking the media, American institutions have for the most part proven resilient against Trump’s controversial presidency.
Hungary’s institutions, however, have not fared as well under Orbán. The far-right, self-proclaimed illiberal democrat has been accused of stifling political dissent, silencing the media and civil society, seizing control of the judiciary and eroding democratic checks and balances to consolidate power.
Among these well-documented concerns are the Hungarian government’s efforts to squeeze the U.S.-backed Central European University out of the country.
Then there is the Hungarian government’s relationship with Russia and China. By selling Hungary U.S. missiles and liquefied natural gas, the administration hopes to lure Budapest away from Moscow and Beijing’s orbit, but Orbán has established close ties with both nations.
On Russia, Orbán has been skeptical about Western sanctions on Moscow and has pursued lucrative business partnerships with Russia. That includes an $11 billion nuclear power plant deal with Russian state-owned companies and, more recently, a deal to establish an office of Russia’s International Investment Bank in Budapest, granting it significant powers usually associated with embassies and diplomatic staff. Hungary’s decision to extradite two Russian suspected arms dealers back to Russia rather than to the U.S. also raised eyebrows. And the fact that Trump’s comments about Orbán focused on the personal rather than the diplomatic may be significant as well.
In the run-up to Orbán’s visit, four Democratic and Republican senators highlighted several of these issues in an open letter to Trump. Media coverage of the meeting also drew attention to Trump “legitimizing” the Orbán government and his apparent willingness to turn a blind eye to Hungary’s courtship of Russia and China.
But both critics and champions of the meeting may be exaggerating its significance. The Financial Times reported that one official played down the length of the meeting in advance, while congressional aides said they feared it would lack diplomatic substance. As Orbán’s opponents have pointed out, despite the Hungarian premier being the first European leader to openly declare his support for Trump in 2016, the president took more than two years to meet him and hosted other CEE leaders first. In addition, two prominent Hungarian opposition politicians were hosted by the State Department hours before Trump met Orbán, in what some have interpreted as a snub to the prime minister. Of course, to others, it is just more evidence that there is indeed a “deep state” intent on undermining certain leaders.
“When they met, Orbán barely spoke and Trump dominated the part of the meeting open to the press, answering questions about Iran and China,” said Wojciech Przybylski, chairman of the Res Publica Foundation, a Warsaw-based think tank, and editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight. “In a way, it positioned Orbán in the shadow of the conversation. I see it mostly as the U.S.A. taking steps to engage with Hungary after years of being sidelined by the U.S. administration but as a part of a larger effort in the Central European region. The U.S.A. is determined to pull countries of Central Europe closer and encourage them to drop their real or potential interest with Chinese or Russian interests.”
While Russia’s presence in the region is long-established, China’s interests have grown significantly in the past few years, thanks largely to its Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to build a trade and investment corridor across Eurasia. This has led to concerns that dependence on Chinese investment — and the burden of Chinese debt — could act as a “Trojan horse” for Beijing’s interests in the West.
Trump has made addressing China’s growing economic ambitions and the national security risks it poses a priority for his administration, but on that front, he and Orbán clearly don’t see eye to eye.
“In April, Finance Minister Mihály Varga flew to China to meet with executives from the technology giant Huawei to reaffirm Hungary’s partnership with the company despite an explicit warning from [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo that such cooperation would harm Budapest’s relationship with the United States,” wrote Melissa Hooper and Gregory Feifer in a May 11 Foreign Policy article. “Orbán himself met with Chinese President Xi Jinping that month, reinforcing Hungary’s participation in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.”
The Military Component
Re-engagement with CEE seemed to take another step forward on June 12, when Polish President Andrzej Duda visited the White House and Trump announced an agreement to send 1,000 U.S. troops to Poland. The decision follows Polish lobbying for more troops to supplement the 4,500 U.S. servicemen already in the country as part of Warsaw’s quest to build a permanent base that it would call “Fort Trump,” in what many critics deride as a not-so-subtle attempt to flatter the president’s ego.
The U.S. already increased its military presence in the region as part of a 2016 agreement with NATO in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Today, the U.S. plays a leading role in NATO battle groups rotating through the Baltic states, operational since 2017 and boosted this year. These are considered a “tripwire” against any potential Russian incursion into the former Soviet states.
The military deployment has been coupled with redoubled efforts to sell U.S. defense equipment to CEE NATO members. Poland agreed to purchase the U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System for $414 million earlier this year, following a $4.8 billion deal to acquire Patriot missiles last year. It is also eyeing F-35 fighter jets.
Meanwhile, Slovakia recently opted to buy F-16s over Swedish-made Gripens last year to replace its Russian fighter jets, a hangover from the Cold War. Bulgaria and the U.S. are also engaged in discussions over F-16 acquisitions, which sources suggest have become a defining element of Washington’s relations with Sofia, one of the more Russophile capitals in CEE. As well as boosting the bottom lines of the U.S. defense industry, these sales should help increase the interoperability of regional militaries with their U.S. counterparts.
As Kaminski notes, economic ties between Poland and the U.S. have been strengthened by increasing imports of U.S. liquefied natural gas through the Świnoujście LNG terminal on the Baltic Sea. The U.S. has also been supportive of the Three Seas Initiative, a strategy championed by Poland that seeks to improve energy, transportation and digital infrastructure across CEE.
“Ironically, U.S. policy towards CEE under the Trump administration could be seen as a belated response to a public appeal expressed by a group of Central European personalities in a letter to Obama administration from 2009,” said Jiří Schneider, executive director of the Aspen Institute Central Europe and a former political director and first deputy minister of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Despite transactional rhetoric from the U.S. president, allocations of defense funds by the Pentagon in fact strengthen the U.S. engagement by a more robust security presence in the Eastern flank of NATO. My guess about U.S. motivation is rather about turning away from Obama policies than about ideological closeness with CEE leaders. Re-engaging makes sense economically. There is a mutual interest especially in energy and defense business.”
Nonetheless, as Przybylski pointed out, the expansion of NATO and America’s military presence in the region dates back to the Obama administration. The U.S. has also long championed the type of energy diversification facilitated by infrastructure such as the Świnoujście terminal — not so much for its own economic interests, but as a way to weaken the region’s dependence on Russian energy imports, which the Kremlin has a history of using as political leverage.
And indeed, there are serious questions over the substance of Trump administration’s engagement in the region. For a start, the president’s scattergun approach to policy and disregard for detail has led to mixed messages. Trump’s apparently hawkish stance on defense sits awkwardly with his often dismissive approach to America’s NATO commitments. Aside from his regular calls for fellow member states to increase their defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, the president’s statements on, for example, new member state Montenegro seem to call into question his willingness to defend the small Balkan ally.
And Trump’s enduring faith in Russian President Vladimir Putin has put him at odds with countries such as Poland, which was denied its request to build a “Fort Trump” military installation, likely because Trump doesn’t want to antagonize Moscow. At the press conference with the Polish president, Trump even said he hopes Poland “is going to have a great relationship with Russia,” much to the chagrin of many Poles.
“In a sense there’s a disconnect in the actions of the U.S. government,” said Neil Barnett, founder and CEO of Istok Associates, a London-based intelligence and investigation consultancy.
“On one level, the machinery of U.S. government, the Pentagon and the State Department carries on as usual,” he said, referring to the consistent support diplomats and defense officials have offered Poland and the Baltics in condemning Russian aggression.
On the other hand, Barnett points out that, “Trump is permanently questioning NATO, implicitly and sometimes explicitly casting doubt on Article 5 [which guarantees mutual defense]. Denigrating NATO plays into Russian interests and fits into a picture of strange unilateral actions by the U.S.”
As signs of the U.S. government’s conflicted policymaking with regards to CEE, Barnett cites America’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that eliminated the threat of Russian missiles striking Europe; the limits the administration has placed on Ukraine’s use of much-trumpeted U.S.-supplied Javelin missiles; and the easing of sanctions on Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
Furthermore, Trump and many of those close to him, including some senior U.S. diplomats in Europe, are openly hostile to the EU. Trump has been a vocal cheerleader for Brexit, which would see the EU lose a large and influential member that has historically promoted the transatlantic alliance.
CEE governments in particular are increasingly skeptical of greater centralization of power in Brussels, and in some cases have been at loggerheads with EU institutions. But public support for EU membership in CEE remains high, largely because of the economic and institutional benefits that it has brought. No government in the region supports the bloc’s breakup, and all at least nominally supported the U.K.’s continued membership.
“At the moment, President Trump is directly interfering in British politics with support for [euroskeptic politicians] Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, and his henchman Steve Bannon is trying to organize the populist right in Europe, which ultimately is trying to destroy the EU,” said Barnett, who has worked extensively on Russian influence in the politics of other countries. “If you look at the actions of the White House, it’s about decoupling European states from each other, and the U.S. from Europe. It’s the atomization of Western democracies, and this is a primary objective of Russian foreign policy.”
Schneider warns that in this volatile international environment, engagement both among EU member states and between the EU and the U.S. should remain paramount, but Trump has injected perpetual uncertainty into the mix.
“CEE states’ strategic interest lies not in their bilateral relations with the U.S., but in maintaining the transatlantic bond and the whole of the EU,” he said, warning that if relations between the EU and U.S. deteriorate, “it would be bad for Poland and Baltic states, for example, no matter how special their bilateral relations with the U.S. are.”
Andrew MacDowall (@andrewmacdowall) is a correspondent and analyst focusing on Central and Eastern Europe who has contributed to publications including The Guardian, Financial Times and Politico Europe.