“What is the trend and magnitude of the changes Hungarian foreign policy will be forced to implement as the world emerges from the coronavirus crisis? Are we going to be compelled to make any radical changes at all? Or is it rather the case that the pandemic merely amplifies already existing trends in foreign policy, in turn forcing the actors of international affairs to adopt speedier and more efficient measures in response? The basics of Hungarian foreign policy are spelled out in the government’s strategy, most recently summarised nine years ago.”
What is the trend and magnitude of the changes Hungarian foreign policy will be forced to implement as the world emerges from the coronavirus crisis? Are we going to be compelled to make any radical changes at all? Or is it rather the case that the pandemic merely amplifies already existing trends in foreign policy, in turn forcing the actors of international affairs to adopt speedier and more efficient measures in response? The basics of Hungarian foreign policy are spelled out in the government’s strategy, most recently summarised nine years ago. The major objectives set forth in that document – foreign policy assistance for various sectors of the economy, attention to the events in the world at large, the ambitious development of foreign policy infrastructure – have been implemented on an ongoing basis in Hungary’s administration of its foreign affairs. At the time, the fundamental policy principles were adapted to the situation in the wake of our EU presidency under the title of Hungarian Foreign Policy After the Union Presidency. Today, the same principles can be reinterpreted for the current situation with the provisional title Hungarian Foreign Policy After the Coronavirus. What follows is an explication of these principles in eight points.
1. Attaining a better position while remaining planted in the interests of the nation.
The crisis triggered by the coronavirus has shed a brighter limelight than ever before on the “power games” inevitably fought in the international arena, most notably between the internationalists and the nation states. What is at stake is whether the nation states will remain the primary agents exercising public power or relinquish this function to supranational organisations. Concurrently, “games” are being staged within the camp perimeters on either side, with various “world-redeeming” concepts and, respectively, the interests of national interests and nation states pitted against one another. Hungary has been one of the vocal players in these games, seeking to protect its national interests and sovereignty against the forces of internationalism and other, often aggressive ambitions while bolstering its competitiveness. In the current environment, the Hungarian government is doing all this with the admitted goal of helping the country to a more advantageous position during the rebuilding after the coronavirus than the one it occupied before it. Indeed, carving out such a better position using the tools of diplomacy is the most important mission of Hungarian foreign policy today.
2. Health security and intensifying contest in technology.
Traditionally, power games are decided by three factors, namely economic prowess, military striking ability, and the right strategy of developing them, along with suitable methods of implementing that strategy. In the wake of the pandemic, these factors have been augmented by a fourth element, which lies in the state of health care and health security of the given country. This is because, after the shake-out following the economic lockdown, the enterprises in the sectors advanced along the value chain, where the highest proportion of added value is produced, will inevitably go and establish themselves where the competitive business climate is combined with pre-existing, steady work force capacities, and the state of health security is also stable and can be considered a given. The passing of the pandemic will clearly reveal how much economic, military and human power each country has preserved to harness for the task of rebuilding. But this alone will not be enough to declare the winners of the game. Those in possession of high-efficiency technologies, particularly in the field of digitalisation, will be faster in capitalising on its remaining capacities, potentially reshuffling the pecking order emerging from the lockdown. Consequently, the rivalry for new technologies will be crucial for the entire competition. Hungarian foreign economic policy can only be successful in its efforts to catapult the country into a better position if it does not content itself with focusing on the classic fields of foreign economy (foreign markets, investments, and capital deployment) but gives equal priority to the development and utilisation of scientific diplomacy. There are two cardinal issues at play. How can we catch up with the leading edge of global technology? And how can we prevent technological progress, which has an inevitable impact on our security, from putting our sovereignty at risk?
3. Pragmatic relations building.
A pragmatic approach, as opposed to both the ideologically loaded aversion to the West and the equally ideological embrace of everything Western, is obviously called for not only in respect of the adoption of technologies but across our foreign policy on the whole. This means that we must exploit opportunities while remaining keenly aware of the risks, in all our foreign relations. The United States is our most powerful ally and guarantor of our military security, while being both the most valued partner and the most potent rival of European economy. Therefore, Hungary would be well advised to approach the free trade negotiations and, more generally, the trade policy of the EU with a considered strategy and a proactive attitude. Precisely because the Eurozone constitutes the main market for Hungarian products and services, the problems it faces pose an existential challenge to Hungary’s economy as well. Although China has made a major contribution to our financial stability without stipulating conditions in terms of economic and social policy, backing our railroad expansion project into the Balkans, and supplying us with indispensable health equipment in the thick of the global pandemic, it is known to harbour geopolitical and technological ambitions which the United States counts among the most perilous risks to our mutual security. Likewise, Russia is an essential partner for Hungary in the energy and space technology sectors, but it feels threatened by the military alliance of which we are part, and thus ultimately by Hungary itself. The pragmatic foreign policy of what might be called “rose without thorns” or “only the best of both worlds” showed its viability when it managed to stabilise our country at a time when, following the fall of the disastrous government of Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2008, Hungary was plunged into a state similar to that of Greece. Indeed, the success Hungary achieved in the 2010’s in the reconstruction of the economy and finance ended up strengthening Europe itself, as we became one of the national economies responsible for ratcheting up the consolidated economic performance of the Union. We must keep up this momentum!
4. A sustainable West.
Having said all of that, we must never ignore the fact that whatever happens in Germany or the United States – be it adverse or beneficial – will have a far more decisive impact on our own position than any event in Russia or China. Therefore, ensuring the sustainability of a Western civilisation that has seen better days remains a matter of life and death for Hungary as well, and the cornerstone of our alliance with the Western powers. That bottom line of our efforts to build forward our coalition within Europe consists of cooperation and, if need be, confrontation with the Union in the interest of upholding the viability of Western civilisation and of Hungary in it. The Hungarian policy adopted in connection with the economic bailout package proposed by the EU in the wake of the coronavirus crisis served as an example of near-clinical purity for this policy centred on sustainability. Hungary showed its solidarity for the nations in trouble by standing up in favour of adopting the package, even though it did not need it itself. At the same time, joining forces with Poland, it triumphed in preventing the seven-year budget from making the award of the package contingent upon the so-called rule of law criterion. In other words, we managed to rule out the possibility for economic aid to be turned into a tool of exercising political pressure. And this is precisely the vantage point on which the nightmare of a federal European United States is founded. We perceive a particularly menacing threat to the sustainability of Western civilisation (and our own) in political-ideological dictates, which undermine our good relations as allies. As Viktor Orban himself put it, we have won a battle but not the entire war. To this I wish to add that we had never won a battle as vital in its consequences for the future of the West. Another set of significant challenges is presented by the demographical problems and the pressure of migration, both weighing heavy on Europe, along with Europe’s lagging behind in the global economic and technological competition. These issues have lost none of their significance. The sustainability of the West cannot be guaranteed in any way other than by preserving the powers of the nation states to protect the liberty and well-being of their citizens effectively, as they see fit. This is the token of an enduring alliance among the peoples and states of the West.
5. A service-oriented Europe.
Hungary’s disappointment with Europe’s performance during the pandemic does not change the fact that the European Union and the European Council (of Prime Ministers) are among the chief custodians of the sustainability of Western civilisation. For Hungary’s Europe policy, the dilemma of whether we need “more or less Europe” (meaning more or fewer European institutions) is not a question of principle. The point is that our common structures should exist to bolster the ability of member states to guarantee the liberty, well-being and security of their citizens in a world rife with global challenges. The community institutions of Europe were created by the member states for the purpose of serving our common interests. It is fundamentally this service-oriented character that they must recoup instead of nurturing and exercising an increasingly oppressive stance of administrative power.
It is a mistaken and harmful perception to suggest that Hungary’s foreign policy seeks to dismantle the European Union or revamp it as a loose association of member states. In fact, Hungary positively wants to broaden integration in certain areas, for instance by urging a common European army and a common digital market, as these would effectively boost the security and competitiveness of member states. It was with this aim that the countries of Western Europe created the European Council (of Prime Ministers), long before the European Union itself. By the same token, the Hungarian presidency of the European Council (of Prime Ministers), forthcoming in 2021, will have to promote the concurrent enforcement of the rights of European citizens, in terms of human rights, individual liberties and the right to life in security, each presupposing the other.
6. A Central European Stability Zone.
The pandemic had no effect whatsoever on the fact that the stability and prosperity of Central, Eastern and South-eastern Europe form our foremost security interest. More than that, it underscored the importance of regional cooperation, notably including health care, mandating cooperation in the project of rebuilding the economy a mutual regional responsibility. We can only guarantee that aforementioned “better position” for the long term by seeing to it that our country is surrounded from all directions by a zone marked by stability, prosperity and robust health. One positive corollary of the pandemic that cannot be overestimated is the outcome of the presidential elections in Poland, which must be regarded as a major success in terms of geopolitics and regional policy. The primary instruments of our policy focused on the stability zone include, on the one hand, the fostering of a Central European economic zone through cooperation among the Visegrad Countries and embracing the Three Seas Initiative, and, on the other hand, by taking a proactive part in shaping the EU’s neighbour and enlargement policy. Last but not least, we must rely on our own good neighbour relations, but never to the detriment of our ambitions of national policy.
7. An authentic perspective on the EU.
In this context, as a major triumph of our foreign policy this year, Hungary’s foresight in stockpiling of health care supplies during the coronavirus crisis allowed us to extend material support to partner countries in the Balkans and the East. Another achievement was our success in advocating regional interests during the debates surrounding the reconstruction fund and related financial considerations. At present, the number one task of our foreign and economic policy is to ensure Hungary’s regional leadership in rebuilding the economy. At the same time it is obvious that the stability of these regions cannot be guaranteed for the long term without adopting an authentic, genuine perspective on EU enlargement. Consequently, we make it a point to support the EU’s policies regarding accession and its eastern neighbours, and must ensure that the other policies concerning Eastern and South-eastern Europe, such as the Berlin Initiative of the EU’s neighbour policy, actually serve to pave the way to enlargement in this region, rather than being used by anyone as an alternative to the accession policy. The fact that the portfolio of the EU Commissioner responsible for fortifying the Union’s neighbour and enlargement policies is held, in this term, by a Hungarian professional in the person of Olivér Várhelyi represents a huge potential for Hungary, the European Union and all the regions concerned.
8. National neighbour policy.
Another crucial mission of our foreign policy consists of dispersing ill-meaning misconceptions about our own neighbour and national politics. Following a successful neighbour policy is indispensable for Hungary to ensure that the aforementioned belt of Central European stability and prosperity coincide with a contiguous geographical zone stretching from the Baltics to the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea. Upholding the cultural, economic, individual and community rights of Hungarian minority communities in neighbouring countries, along with support funds granted by the mother country will be instrumental in having these communities – numbering over a million souls in Romania, and hundreds of thousands each in Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine – assume a vested interest in the region’s stability and success of the country which happens to incorporate the land where they were born. We need to have the political elite understand this in those neighbouring countries where the message has fallen on deaf ears thus far. All in all, our neighbour policy has been a success, and Hungary’s good relations with Austria, Croatia and Slovenia can surely be regarded as a tradition. The mutual advances between Hungary and Serbia, very much in evidence for years, and that between Hungary and Slovakia, which have recently gathered impressive speed, justify the claim that five of our seven neighbours are now our strong allies on the ground of well-recognised mutual interests. The Slovak Premier’s symbolic gesture on the centenary of the Versailles Peace Treaty gave a tremendous boost to the appreciation of Slovakia in the eyes of Hungary, and holds out the promise of making good on the promise of a historic opportunity as a complex bilateral proposition. The task facing us now is to broaden the cooperation in our already successful relations with the aforementioned five countries. An opportunity to do this presents itself in purposefully supporting our neighbours, and vice versa, in rebuilding after the pandemic by identifying crucial regional projects. Another liability for us is to then try and apply the proven model to our relations with Romania and Ukraine. If the Hungarian community can serve as the driving force behind a regional alliance with our neighbours north, west, and south, the same must be possible to achieve with our two neighbours in the east.
Translation by Peter Balikó Lengyel
(This text is an edited version of a lecture delivered at the event of the Rakoczi Society on 22 July 2020.)