Long Time Friends Right from the Start
As the unprecedented presidential campaign came to end in 2020, it revealed the voting behaviour of a cross-section of American voters that is now worth studying insofar as it will, without a doubt, carry over into the next off-year election.
To the extent that Hungarian-Americans voted for Donald Trump, many of them did so not because they viewed him as a polished diplomat or a sophisticated foreign policy guru. They assumed, however, that unlike in the years leading up to the 2016 election strike, the Hungarian nation would no longer have to face the avalanche of public criticism (at least not from official decision makers) that had been levelled against Hungary and its prime minister by a Democratic administration and its allies in, for example, the Congress, agencies, and think tanks prior to 2017. The emphasis here is on public criticism that is not based on facts or on an understanding of Hungarian culture and history, or is not free from what is perceived to be political bias. Such public criticism only serves to demean and alienate Hungarians and erode US strategic interests in a stable and democratic region. The effect of public criticism of Hungary is exacerbated when the EU and NATO remain silent each time the Hungarian minorities living in the countries neighbouring Hungary are subjected to discriminatory measures, for example, when Hungarians in Ukraine are deprived of the right to study in their mother tongue or are harassed and intimidated as they were on 30 November 2020, when their cultural and educational institutions were raided by heavily armed Ukrainian special police forces. In Romania, the elections on 6 December 2020 catapulted the right-wing nationalist party, Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), into parliament. AUR whips up hatred against Hungarians in Romania, labelling the parliamentary Democratic Union of Hungarians (RMDSZ) in Romania ‘extremist’ and accusing Hungarians of persecuting Romanians where Hungarians outnumber them.
Against this backdrop, Hungarian-American voters were not altogether surprised when, in October 2020, Democratic presidential candidate Biden characterized Hungary as a ‘totalitarian state’. They were dumbfounded, however, when the 27 November issue of The Wall Street Journal ran a story by Laurence Norman concerning Republican Senator Roger F. Wicker’s (R-MS) instructions to his aide to deliver ‘a stern message’ to the Hungarian Embassy threatening to ‘start a campaign [to drive] a wedge between [Hungary’s Prime Minister] Mr Orbán and the congressional Republicans he had long courted’, if Hungary did not stop blocking passage of an EU law similar to the US Magnitsky Act on human rights.
It is safe to assume that many Hungarian-American voters had overlooked the two schools of thought that govern American foreign policy. In his internationally acclaimed book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger describes these two schools as follows: ‘[the] first is that America serves its values best by perfecting democracy at home, thereby acting as a beacon for the rest of mankind; the second, that America’s values impose on it an obligation to crusade for them around the world’. And since the late 1970s, human rights have been included in the formation of US foreign policy. Both the isolationist and the missionary approaches, as well as the integration of human rights, embrace the core American belief that it has the best system of government, and that with reverence for international law, democracy, and human rights, peace and prosperity can be attained. Regardless which approach is current, maintaining strong bilateral relations with Hungary, a NATO ally, is an important objective. Prominent leaders from both parties recognize this.
Hungary is to be congratulated for recognizing the significant contribution made by President George H. W. Bush in helping Hungary and other Central and Eastern European nations regain their freedom and independence from the Soviet Union. The recognition took the form of the unveiling of a statue of President Bush by Prime Minister Orbán and United States Ambassador David Cornstein in Budapest, on 27 October 2020. This memorable event brought back memories of the then rapidly unfolding developments and Hungary’s role in the process that would unexpectedly result in the demise of Soviet communism and the Warsaw Pact.
I will never forget the discussions and negotiations at the 1989 Paris CSCE Conference of the Human Dimension, which I attended as a public member of the US delegation, and which took place while President Bush was in office. There was electricity in the air, not to mention great anticipation as to what could reasonably be expected to occur on a day-by-day basis, including the beginning of the restoration of good American–Hungarian relations.
Such relations actually extend back to the birth of the United States when, on 11 May 1779, a Hungarian hussar officer, Colonel-Commander Michael Kovats
(Figure 1), gave his life in the American War of Independence while leading the first US Cavalry unit of the Continental Army— that he had recruited and trained in Hungarian hussar tactics—in an assault on the British during the siege of Charleston, South Carolina. The British remarked that Kovats’sforceswere‘thebest cavalry the rebels ever had’. He is immortalized in the large painting by Gabriella Koszorus-Varsa seen here (Figure 2). He is also immortalized at the Citadel Military College of South Carolina—in the vicinity of which he was reportedly buried—where US Military Cadets celebrate his service annually in ‘Kovats Field’, behind Bond Hall, named after him in November 1959. On the grounds of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, DC, there is also a life-size statue in his honour, sculpted by Paul Takacs and executed by Attila Dienes in 2003.
Then, a mere eighty-two years after Kovats’s valiant charge, Hungarians living in the United States, such as General Alexander ‘Sándor’ Asboth and Colonel Charles ‘Károly’ Zagonyi, enlisted, served, and successfully led Union forces in the American Civil War. Zagonyi was aide to Major General John C. Frémont, while Asboth later also distinguished himself as US ambassador to Argentina and Uruguay.
Today, the United States and Hungary are NATO allies—an alliance that is in the vital interest of both countries. It is a working alliance which guarantees Hungary’s
security in an increasingly dangerous world. Support for NATO is high in Hungary: 54 to 34 per cent, enabling Hungary to participate in international peacekeeping initiatives by, for example, sending HDF troops in the NATO-led ISAF force in Afghanistan, to Kosovo under command of KFOR, and to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Former Senator John McCain, a critic of the Hungarian government, nevertheless acknowledged that the ‘United States is grateful for the strong international cooperation that we enjoy with Hungary, and its willingness to play a leadership role on behalf of international peace and security’.
In the future, the United States and Hungary must continue to build on their unique, long-standing, and strong friendship to jointly promote freedom, democracy, minority and human rights, and regional security.
Frank Koszorus, Jr Honorary President
American Hungarian Federation 29 April 2021