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Viktor Orbán's Warm Welcome

Viktor Orbán's Warm Welcome

As Trump opens the gates of Mar-a-Lago for Orbán, countries including China, Russia, and Iran trail not far behind.

Dalibor Roháč

What does Viktor Orbán, who is scheduled to visit Donald Trump in Florida on Friday, really think of the United States–and of Hungary’s place within the Western alliance? 

In 2008, Orbán was quick to denounce Russia’s attack on Georgia as “an imperial approach and a policy of brute force,” no different from the Soviet crackdown on Hungary in 1956. Today, Russian imperialism seems to bother the prime minister of Hungary only if it comes from the late Alexei Navalny—whose memory Orbán refused to honor—on the grounds that the latter had been a Russian “chauvinist.” 

The change in Orbán’s geopolitical outlook merits an explanation. Simplistic talk of “populism” or “nationalism” does not suffice. Europe offers a spectrum of equally populist, anti-immigrant leaders and groups—from Poland's Law and Justice Party (PiS), to the Sweden Democrats, to Italy’s Giorgia Meloni—who remain nonethless committed to the transatlantic partnership. 

And while Hungarian public opinion has turned against the United States more than in most European countries, this has likely followed Orbán’s lead rather than influenced his positions. As late as 2009, only 15 percent of Hungarians saw Russian influence as a good thing (the lowest proportion of all countries in the region), 76 percent were concerned about dependence on Russian energy, and just 23 percent saw U.S. influence as a bad thing.

Possible Russian or Chinese corruption of Hungarian elites does not offer a convincing explanation for Orbán’s changed attitude, either. Orbán’s circle has built their wealth primarily by siphoning away EU funds, not via Russian money. To this day, EU funds remain an order of magnitude larger for Hungary than any investment projects coming from countries such as China.

Nevertheless, the change in the country’s direction could not be greater. When Orbán led his country into NATO in the late 1990s, he angered the Russians by his suggestion that Hungary would consider the deployment of NATO’s nuclear weapons on its territory, if necessary. When he received, in 2001, the Freedom Award from my employer, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), he sounded outright sentimental about the United States and the transatlantic partnership. “[My mother’s] tears of pride—national as well as maternal—would have caused the Potomac to flood its banks,” he mused.

Why do U.S. and European border controls at airports separate people into U.S. and non-U.S., and EU and non-EU, lanes, he asked? “Why do we not establish a third lane, called ‘Trans-Atlantic citizens’? For us, it does and it should feel different, to know that a citizen of our Allies enters our country.”

Today, an entirely different set of relationships takes precedence over the transatlantic one, reduced to Budapest’s outreach to MAGA circles. Hungary has teamed up with China to “deepen cooperation in areas including counter-terrorism, combating transnational crimes, security, and law enforcement capacity building.” The deal is likely designed to give the Chinese government greater leeway to spy on and police its citizens living in Hungary. 

Yet, the relationship goes further back: In 2011, Huawei picked Hungary as its logistical hub for Europe. Orbán was quick to join the Belt and Road Initiative, and his government famously resisted calls from the Trump administration to ban Huawei equipment from its 5G infrastructure. And as Hungary’s neighbors to the West are thinking about responding to the threat posed by the Chinese electric vehicle industry, Hungary is trying to capitalize on Chinese presence in the sector—with a new, $3 billion dollar Huawei automotive project paired with the large Chinese-run battery plant already in Debrecén.

Then there is Hungary’s relationship with Russia, which even now seems to be thriving. For years before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Hungary was blocking ministerial-level engagement between Ukraine and NATO (ostensibly to protect the rights of Hungarian speakers in Ukraine). In 2019, Hungary welcomed the International Investment Bank, essentially a Russia-run spying organization, that set up its headquarters in Budapest and enjoyed diplomatic privileges until being rejected under the threat of U.S. sanctions in 2023. Orbán has refused any military assistance to Ukraine, and has even banned the transit of any military materiel through Hungary’s territory. As Europe struggled to decouple from Russian natural gas, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó visited Moscow to ensure Hungary could still access cheap Russian energy.

Less prominent is Hungary’s outreach to Central Asia, particularly to Iran. Hungarian universities are currently hosting around 2,000 Iranian students, while the government is supportive of Iran’s right to a peaceful use of nuclear energy. At the end of February, Szijjártó made a trip to Tehran to open a Hungarian-Iranian business forum, and also to explore economic opportunities in areas not affected by international sanctions.

Ironically, Orbán was prescient in earlier warnings against dangerous economic entanglements with unreliable regimes. The Hungarian government insisted, he promised in his 2001 AEI speech, “on the transparency of these capital movements, so that there can be no suspicion of organized crime, money laundering, or hidden purchase of influence there.”

Hungary’s turn to the East is not completely without precedent. In the interwar period, a literary, cultural, and ideological movement known as “Turanism” traced the origins of Hungarian people back to the lands east of the Caspian Sea, close to Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Depending on the version of the story, the Hungarians thus purportedly share less with other Europeans and more with Turks and other Asian nations—possibly even Japan. Orbán’s own government has provided funding for research of the genome of Hungary’s founding royal dynasty, the Árpáds—using the bones of a 12th century king, Béla III—that place the Hungarians in the genetic proximity of the Bashkirs, a Central Asian ethnic group living primarily in Russia. 

Just when—and how—has Orbán morphed from a conventional center-right Atlanticist into what can only be charitably described as an eccentric, idiosyncratic geopolitical thinker? The most compelling account is offered by the man himself, in his widely cited 2014 speech in Băile Tușnad: 

In the 20th century there have been three major world-regime changes. At the end of World War I, at the end of World War II, and in 1990. The common points in these […] were that when the changes took place it was clear for all of us that we are going to live in a different world overnight. 


The changes in the world nowadays have similar value and weight. We can identify its manifestation—that point when it became clear—as the financial crisis of 2008, or rather the Western financial crisis. And the importance of this change is less obvious because people sense it in a different way than the previous three. It was unclear in 2008 during the huge Western financial collapse that we are going to live in a different world from now on.

Much else in the speech—his embrace of illiberal democracy, his touting of economic success stories underwritten by authoritarian rule in places such as China and Turkey, or his disdain for the Western “dogma” of individual freedom—falls into place if one takes the above passage seriously. Orbán, in other words, believed he saw the writing on the wall, and accordingly planned for a post-American world.

America’s flailing support for Ukraine, Donald Trump’s disdain for NATO, and the hollowing out of U.S. military power might well vindicate Orbán’s prediction. Nevertheless, it is hard to see the past fourteen years of Hungarian foreign policy simply as an exercise in cold-blooded realism. If Western alliances are becoming ineffectual and Eastern Europe faces the threat of Russian imperialism, a rational foreign policy would prioritize investing in hard power and alliances with likeminded regional actors—and not with pariah states.

Hungary’s defense spending only reached 2 percent of GDP in 2023. Rather than investing in partnerships with countries exposed to similar geopolitical threats, Hungarians have been happy to undercut them. Notwithstanding deep bilateral ties and ideological affinities between the ruling PiS and Fidesz parties, not helping Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion was more important to Orbán than his country’s relationship with Poland. Similarly, Hungary’s obstinacy over the EU’s Ukraine Facility, worth €50 billion, or over Sweden’s NATO accession, might have kept Orbán the center of attention. Yet, such antics have hardly made him “highly respected all over Europe,” contrary to Trump’s characterization.

The calculation seems to be that Hungary’s economic relationship with China will give it enough leverage to protect it from possible Russian aggression against NATO countries. But such a conflict would inevitably have massive spillover effects on countries in the neighborhood. Betting your country’s security on things going well in a state of Hobbesian anarchy seems substantially riskier than trying to prevent such a scenario from materializing in the first place through deterrence and regional alliances. 

There might be another, much darker component to Hungary’s rebalancing, which does not involve simply planning for a post-American Europe but rather actively cheering for it. Much like interwar Turanism, which was a reaction to Hungary’s dismemberment at the hands of Western powers at Trianon, Hungary’s current foreign policy turn to the East has a cultural and ideological component that is centered on a sense of grievance.

According to Zoltán Koskovics, a foreign policy analyst at the Fidesz-friendly Center for Fundamental Rights (which hosts CPAC conferences in Hungary), “Hungary loved Pax Americana and we are sorry to see it go. But [Hungary] will never voluntarily join the Woke Empire.” Setting aside Orbán’s penchant for the “great replacement” theory, one could have sympathy with warnings against progressive overreach. Democracy and procedural liberalism are not the same as social tolerance, openness to immigration, or an expansive understanding of gay and transgender rights, and it is wrong for the Left to conflate the two. But while progressive excesses surely are one element of the story, they work hand in hand with a perception of Western hypocrisy (manifested through the workings of European institutions, in Orbán’s eyes) as well as the lingering humiliation of Trianon.

“The West raped the thousand-year-old borders and history of Central Europe,” Orbán thundered at a centenary commemoration of the Treaty of Trianon in June 2020. “They forced us to live between indefensible borders, deprived us of our natural treasures, separated us from our resources, and made a death row out of our country.” Yet, “even the greatest cannot avoid the justice of history,” Orbán continued, promising that Hungarians “will be there at the funeral of those who wanted to put us in the grave.”

Such dramatic talking points have gone hand in hand with Hungary’s active outreach and influence operations among Hungarian speakers in neighboring countries. They have also coincided with Orbán’s active effort to get Americans (and the West more broadly) out of Eastern Europe. 

It may be farfetched for Hungary’s neighbors to see Orbán as a threat to their territorial integrity. But can one be sure that such thoughts never crossed Orbán’s mind—not even when Russian tanks were closing in on Kyiv in February 2022? It does seem to be a good rule of thumb to take it seriously when political leaders say the quiet part out loud, as Orbán did in his 2020 Trianon speech:

[W]e are the ones who are reversing the fate of Hungary. We can hope that our generation, the fourth generation after Trianon can fulfil our mission and take Hungary all the way to the gates of victory. But the decisive battle must be fought by the generation following us, the fifth generation after Trianon. They must take the final steps.

What are those “final steps,” if not a reconstitution of “Greater Hungary” through some grand bargain with Beijing and Moscow? Such an agenda would be clearly delusional but that does not make it any less dangerous to Hungarians and their neighbors, especially if its pursuit actively invites Russia and China to fill the vacuum left by the United States to Eastern Europe. 

In a prospective Eurasia run by the Russians and the Chinese, of course, Orbán would become a satrap, not a leader of a sovereign nation, much less an equal to Xi or Putin. Unlike in the summer of 2014, moreover, Russia, China, and other autocracies can be hardly seen as rising powers today. If anything, it is Russia and China’s economic and demographic declines that are making them both dangerous. If, however, U.S. and Western deterrence fails, Eastern Europe could turn easily into a highly volatile place, in which all manner of opportunistic behavior, including a redrawing of the region’s political map, becomes possible. 

The odds that Hungary—a nation of less than 10 million people living within “indefensible borders”—lands on the winning end of that scenario are very long indeed.

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor at American Purpose. 

Image: Viktor Orbán arrives at the Tallinn Digital Summit, September 2017. (Flickr: photo by Annika Haas, EU2017EE)

Eastern EuropeEuropePolitical PhilosophyRussiaU.S. Foreign PolicyUkraineChinaAuthoritarianism