Europe

Eyebrows raised as Viktor Orbán to visit Donald Trump in Florida

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Guardian
March 7, 2024 at 09:47
Donald Trump welcomes Viktor Orban to the White House in 2019. There are fears that Orbán could use his access to the Republican presidential candidate to promote Kremlin talking points on Ukraine. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Donald Trump welcomes Viktor Orban to the White House in 2019. There are fears that Orbán could use his access to the Republican presidential candidate to promote Kremlin talking points on Ukraine. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Hungary’s PM arrives in US this week without a White House invitation as he pursues what critics call his ‘fantasy’ foreign policy

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is putting his chips on the table with a trip to visit Donald Trump, as the US and Europe prepare for key elections later this year.

The longtime Hungarian prime minister, who has faced repeated criticism from the US government over democratic backsliding and his friendly relationship with the Kremlin, will be arriving in the US this week without an invitation from the White House.

In an almost unheard-of move for a Nato country’s leader, he is not expected to meet anyone from the Biden administration.

Instead, he is scheduled to speak on Thursday on a panel with the head of a conservative thinktank, the Heritage Foundation, before meeting Trump in Florida on Friday.

The visit, which comes at a low point in Hungary’s post cold war relationship with Washington, is being watched closely in foreign policy circles, in part due to fears that Orbán could use his access to the Republican presidential candidate to promote Kremlin talking points on Ukraine.

“The liberal international order is under very serious attack,” said Péter Buda, a former Hungarian counter-intelligence official. “As a kind of foreign policy gambler, Orbán has staked everything on the collapse of this order and is betting that if he commits himself in advance to the rising powers of the east, he will be able to secure a more favourable position.

“Both Orbán and Putin’s communications focus on ‘peace’ negotiations, which would undoubtedly benefit the Russians,” Buda said, adding that “one cannot be wrong to assume that Orbán is ultimately lobbying the US on foreign policy in favour of Russia”.

The Hungarian leader has publicly expressed his hope for a foreign policy shift in Washington and Brussels.

“At the end of the year the global political scene will look very different from how it looked at the beginning of this year and, with God’s help, Hungary’s room for manoeuvre will not be reduced but will be expanded to an extent that we have not seen for a long time,” Orbán said in a speech earlier this year.

“We cannot interfere in other countries’ elections but we would very much like to see President Donald Trump return to the White House and make peace here in the eastern half of Europe,” he stressed.

The planned meeting with Trump has raised eyebrows in Budapest and Washington.

“If Trump really was the China hawk he claims to be, he would be grilling Orbán about cosying up to Beijing,” said Katalin Cseh, a member of the European parliament representing Hungary’s opposition Momentum party. “But it seems Trump is more interested in cosying up to authoritarians himself,” she said, adding that “they could even be swapping notes on how to undermine Nato to suit Putin’s interests”.

Ben Cardin, a longtime Democrat lawmaker who serves as chair of the US Senate committee on foreign relations, said in an emailed statement that “Viktor Orbán’s mounting authoritarianism, including the recently enacted ‘Sovereignty Protection Act’, is the main factor putting strain on Hungarian-American relations”.

Orbán’s team has pushed back against criticism. “While the present liberal administration in the US may not actively seek to strengthen ties with Hungary, there is undeniably a growing interest in Hungary among US conservatives,” said the prime minister’s political director, Balázs Orbán, in an emailed response to questions from the Guardian.

“Prime Minister Orbán is visiting the United States to strengthen these relationships,” he said. “I think it is not unusual. Leaders frequently travel for various reasons and engage with counterparts who align with their strategic priorities and national interests.”

The trip is seen as part of Orbán’s long-running effort to become a central figure in an international conservative movement.

“For him, it’s just a big, big moment in his foreign policy importance, and also he could hope that it makes him more serious in the eyes of others,” said Péter Krekó, the director of the Budapest-based Political Capital research institute, noting that countries of Hungary’s size did not usually get much attention from US leaders.

The Hungarian government – which maintains relationships with Moscow and Beijing, still employs former communist security officials and is known for its tendency to skew business competition at home – does not fit in well with traditional American conservatives. The late Republican John McCain described Orbán in 2014 as “a neo-fascist dictator”.

Nevertheless, Orbán’s team have spent a significant amount of time and money on cultivating relationships with a different strand of US conservatives.

The Hungarian government has in recent years hired US consultancies with conservative links to help improve its image.

The Hungarian embassy in Washington has also been directly involved in the outreach: for example, it hosted the former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy twice in the past year.

Last year the prime minister himself hosted Americans who travelled for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Hungary at a reception in his office.

Meanwhile, a network of Hungarian state-funded thinktanks and foundations fund jobs and fellowships for well-connected conservative American pundits and academics.

Balázs Orbán has defended this approach. “In line with our connectivity strategy, we aim to cultivate relations in all directions and aspire to establish Hungary as an intellectual hub in the heart of Europe,” he said. ”

The Hungarian leader’s positioning has not gone unnoticed among US officials. In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, the US ambassador in Budapest, David Pressman, said the Hungarian government was pursuing a “fantasy” foreign policy.

Orbán’s American fans have pushed back against the administration’s approach to Hungary and defended his decision to visit Trump. Gladden Pappin, a conservative academic who serves as president of the state-owned Hungarian Institute of International Affairs and is set to join Orbán on the trip, said in a phone interview that “in some way, this kind of visit indicates that the relationship has been unnecessarily politicised, particularly by the American side”.

A former associate professor at the University of Dallas who moved to Hungary in recent years, Pappin argued that “there has been this weaponisation of diplomacy against Hungary on account of its conservative nature”.

He added: “I think all of us, you know, on the right side of the aisle from an American standpoint, would hope for normalisation of that relationship if Trump is elected.”

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