Hungary's Orban Uses Covid-19 Crisis for Another Power Grab

Hal Brands

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- What do you call a country whose government openly embraces illiberalism and exults in the crisis of democracy, cheers the perceived decline of the U.S. and the rise of its authoritarian challengers, makes irredentist claims against its neighbors, and spreads decay within key institutions of the American-led international order? If you answered “NATO ally,” you are, unfortunately, correct.

Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary is weakening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union from the inside as Russia and China pressure them from the outside; it is setting a terrible precedent as the U.S. reckons with resurgent authoritarianism within a number of its alliances. It may be premature for the U.S. to simply walk away from an ally that more often undercuts than advances American interests. But it’s not too early to start taking steps in that direction.

The latest marker of Hungary’s estrangement came in a speech that Orban recently gave to mark the centennial of the Treaty of Trianon, the post-World War I agreement that established the frontiers of the modern Hungarian state. Orban portrayed Hungarian history as a story of exploitation by rapacious empires, with the “hypocritical American empire” the most recent offender. He touted the achievements of his increasingly authoritarian regime in strengthening and purifying the Hungarian nation. And he described a world in which America is declining, China and Russia are ascending, the EU is dying, and Hungary can look only to itself for salvation.

You wouldn’t know, from listening to the speech, that Hungary has been a member of NATO — the world’s most powerful grouping of democracies — for more than 20 years. Then again, you wouldn’t know this from most of what Orban has done since taking power.

Orban has established himself as one of the great autocratic opportunists of the Covid-19 crisis, using the pandemic to rule by decree and amass formidable emergency powers. (Those powers are set to expire June 20, but few independent observers believe that Orban will simply return to the status quo ante.) This power grab is part of a long arc of illiberalism, through which Orban has turned an imperfect democracy into a deeply corrupt, quasi-authoritarian state. Orban’s government has thoroughly rigged the political system and suppressed criticism; it has rallied nationalist sentiment by demonizing migrants, “Muslim invaders” and Jewish “financiers.” In 2014, Orban gave a major speech heralding the decline of liberal democracy and the rise of the “illiberal state.” Since then, he has created a system that looks a lot like Vladimir Putin’s regime in its early stages.

Orban’s foreign policy isn’t much better. Hungary has undermined NATO support for Ukraine and supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Budapest appears to be something of a playground for Russian spies. Meanwhile, Orban’s government has used lingering resentment over the harsh peace imposed at Trianon — which deprived Hungary of most of its land and population — to stoke tensions with Romania and lay claim to the loyalties of ethnic Hungarians living abroad. This tactic resembles Putin’s use of Russians living abroad as tools of destabilization and Kremlin influence. Orban has also advanced Russia’s interests indirectly, by weakening the democratic solidarity of NATO and the EU. Finally, his government is allowing Huawei Technologies Co. to participate in Hungary’s 5G network, raising fears that Budapest might become a conduit for China’s influence as well as Russia’s. 

In short, Orban’s Hungary is a geopolitical termite, gnawing away at the structures it inhabits. Hungary is using EU economic transfers to keep Orban’s system of corruption well lubricated; it is availing itself of the security NATO offers. All the while, Orban undermines the values and strategic interests of those institutions. Unfortunately, the model is catching on. Countries such as Turkey and the Philippines rely on the U.S. and the benefits the liberal international order offers while consorting with America’s rivals and damaging that order from within.

One reason Orban can do this is that he has met so little resistance. The State Department did obliquely criticize the imposition of emergency rule this spring, but only after Orban had secured the diplomatic prize of an Oval Office visit — and fulsome praise from President Donald Trump — in 2019. Neither NATO nor the EU has mustered much of a response to Orban’s illiberalism. The EU has occasionally withheld transfer payments and periodically threatened sanctions. But it has been reluctant to actually impose them, and Poland — another illiberal democracy — would presumably block any effort to suspend Hungary from the union. NATO has traditionally tried to wait out autocratic governments in its ranks, and it has no provision for expelling wayward members.

But the U.S. does have options, if it chooses to use them. NATO is a multilateral body, but it only really matters because its Article 5 entails a bilateral American commitment to each of its members. The best way of dealing with Orban would be to start holding that commitment at risk.

Washington could restrict defense cooperation with Hungary, by suspending bilateral military exercises and curtailing foreign military financing and sales programs. It could work with non-governmental organizations to expose the corruption of the Hungarian government. At an extreme, the U.S. could essentially deprive Hungary of the protection that NATO offers, by exercising its sovereign right to unilaterally suspend its security obligations to Budapest. Such a move would not be unprecedented: The U.S. suspended its alliance commitments to New Zealand during a row over nuclear weapons policies.

The counterarguments are obvious. Putting Hungary in the penalty box will increase its alienation from Washington and Brussels, create new opportunities for Russia and China, and raise questions about how the U.S. will deal with other backsliding allies around the world. Yet these arguments are less persuasive than they seem.

Hungary is already creating opportunities for Russia and China, by undermining the geopolitical unity and democratic cohesion of the West. Increasing the diplomatic costs of Orban’s policies is a way of encouraging and empowering Hungarians who oppose those policies. And the fact that taking a harder line with Budapest will create uncertainty about other relationships is precisely the point. The challenge of dealing with illiberal allies will be omnipresent for U.S. policy makers in the coming years. Washington should use a tougher policy against Hungary, which doesn’t matter much strategically, to build credibility in dealing with other wayward allies that matter more.

The U.S. doesn’t have to cut Hungary loose tomorrow. But it should start making that prospect plausible for Orban and those around him. Doing so could jeopardize America’s alliance with Hungary. But if that country continues on its current course, there won’t be much of an alliance to preserve anyway.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

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