The First World War was supposed to be the War to End All War – because that would settle matters in Europe, and down through Africa and over in the Middle East too – and it sort of did. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was gone. The Ottoman Empire was gone. And of course Germany had been slapped down. There were new borders and new countries – Czechoslovakia, and Iran and Iraq – and Germany had to pay massive reparations, and they’d never be allowed to have a big army and navy ever again. That was in the Treaty of Versailles, signed by all parties in a fancy passenger railroad car parked in the French countryside. Germany had been humiliated. There’d be no more war.
That was absurd. Hitler, or someone like him, was inevitable. Hitler promised to break all the rules and Make Germany Great Again – and he did that. It took no more than twenty years and then he rubbed it in – when France fell to the Germans he made the French sign a humiliating unconditional surrender in that same railroad car. Then he visited Paris. And a few years later that was over – Hitler was dead and so was the fascism of Germany and Italy as was the Imperial fanaticism of Japan.
Democracy had won. Tyrants had lost. Freedom and tolerance had won. The Soviets would go on to argue that communism won, which it did in its limited way. The Soviets had their Iron Curtain countries and a few client states here and there, but that all ended too. The Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union collapsed. A whole lot of those Iron Curtain countries are part of NATO now. Now all that’s left of the Soviet juggernaut is Putin’s smaller and rather shabby Russian Federation. Democracy beats tyranny of any kind – that was the assumption. And no one made the Versailles mistake this time. Germany and Italy were not humiliated. They were rebuilt through the Marshall Plan, and so was Japan. Now the Japanese play baseball and Americans eat sushi. Germany is an ally. Italy became quaint again.
And at least one thing was settled. Fascism was dead. No one was burning books anymore. No one was shutting down the free press. There were no crowds marching through the streets carrying torches and shouting “Jews will NOT replace us!” No one was talking about blood and soil – racial heritage and the Fatherland – because democracy was an idea. Everyone and anyone can share an idea. Everyone is welcome – if they share that idea – government of and by and for the people. And no one is above the law. The age of tyrants was over. Hitler was evil. Mussolini was a joke. No one would ever be suckered into any cult of personality ever again.
When Donald Trump became president, Europe’s fiercest anti-immigration leader saw an opportunity to garner international legitimacy for his policies.
But for more than two years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – the only European Union government head to endorse Trump’s campaign in 2016 – failed to get an invitation to visit the White House, despite Trump hosting numerous European leaders. With no White House visit coming, the Hungarian government lobbied its case to lawmakers, the State Department and the White House. And changes in leadership at the State Department started opening some doors for the Hungarian government.
Finally, on Monday, Trump will host Orbán in the White House, the first time a Hungarian prime minister has visited the White House since 2005.
The visit “clearly raises his profile,” said former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has met with Orbán and his top aides several times.
“The Obama administration and the State Department completely shut out Orbán. He’s an individual who Trump has tracked very closely,” he added.
The Obama administration saw an old-school fascist (and racist) but Bannon kind of likes the guy, and the blood and soil nationalist thing, and thus so does Trump, but others are a bit put off:
While Orbán’s restrictive immigration policies and skepticism about international institutions mirror Trump’s own rhetoric, the Hungarian leader has faced criticism from the European Union, the State Department and civil society groups, which argue that Orbán’s leadership has eroded democratic values. Orbán has been denounced for limiting press freedom, undermining judicial independence, targeting independent nongovernmental groups, encouraging racist and anti-Semitic conspiracies and cracking down on the Central European University, an institution founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.
That’s Trump’s kind of guy, but that can’t be made too obvious:
White House advisers are cautioning Trump against a full embrace of Orbán, despite the president’s own affinity for the leader. One senior White House official said that while “Hungary is a great ally,” that does not mean that Trump is not “troubled” by Hungary’s democratic backsliding.
Publicly, Orbán has heaped praise on Trump.
“We have enthusiastically applauded the president of the United States for thinking precisely as we do when he says ‘America First.’ We say the same: ‘Hungary first, and then everyone else,'” the Hungarian leader said in a 2017 speech.
What’s not to like? And that’s the dilemma:
In its early days, the Trump administration was split into three camps when it came to Hungary: officials who wanted to stick to America’s existing policy of opposing Orbán’s dismantling of independent institutions, advisers who did not care much about Hungary and some advisers who admired Orbán.
The third group seems to have won, but in Foreign Policy, Melissa Hooper and Gregory Feifer have a few things to say about what the Trump people are up to:
Their stated goal will be making some deals. In particular, the Trump administration is couching Orban’s visit as an opportunity to sign two major agreements – one for Hungary’s purchase of U.S. medium-range missiles and the other an order for American natural gas – part of a calculated attempt to pull Hungary back from the brink of closer ties with Russia and China.
That reasoning is flawed: Time and again, Budapest has proved to be an unreliable ally, thumbing its nose at U.S. values and interests and acting against its obligations as a member of NATO and the European Union. And on the U.S. side, the pageantry of Trump’s meeting with his fellow right-wing populist is distracting from the fact that the administration is playing to its own shortsighted goals, sacrificing U.S. interests for a partnership that is no longer strategically sound.
Their assessment is that this guy is nothing but trouble:
Since the victory of Orban’s Fidesz party in elections last year, the prime minister has positioned himself as a champion of what he calls “illiberal democracy” at home and across Europe. Policies such as the creation of a loyal parallel court system and the transfer of control of hundreds of independent news media outlets to his cronies clearly violate the rule of law and harm free market competition. What’s more, despite Washington’s clarity that Ukraine’s eventual ascension to NATO is a priority, Hungary continues to block the talks, effectively protecting a major Russian foreign-policy interest. Nevertheless, during a trip to Budapest in February, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reached agreement on defense cooperation with Hungary to modernize Hungarian forces with U.S. military equipment. The Hungarian parliament has still not ratified the agreement, giving no reason.
Meanwhile, Hungary has continued to pursue relationships with U.S. rivals. In April, Finance Minister Mihaly Varga flew to China to meet with executives from the technology giant Huawei to reaffirm Hungary’s partnership with the company despite an explicit warning from Pompeo that such cooperation would harm Budapest’s relationship with the United States. Orban himself met with Chinese President Xi Jinping that month, reinforcing Hungary’s participation in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Their assessment is that that Trump is letting this guy walk all over him, because there’s even more to this:
While the defense cooperation agreement gathers dust, Budapest has acted with impressive speed to pass legislation granting associates from the Russia-based International Investment Bank special privileges in Hungary. Now the bank is poised to move its headquarters from Moscow to Budapest. The terms require that Hungary grant all bank workers – and all people identified as bank guests – legal entry and free travel within the EU without review. Hungary would also provide diplomatic immunity to all bank governors. One of two proposed locations for the bank’s office is right across from the U.S. Embassy.
Not surprisingly, intelligence experts in both Europe and the United States worry the building may be used as a cover for intelligence gathering as well as corrupt financial transactions.
Those concerns were heightened with the news that the bank’s chair, Nikolay Kosov, has KGB ties: Both his parents were high-ranking KGB officers. Even the Hungarian security service has admitted that it can’t guarantee the bank will not present security problems, which is bad news for the rest of the EU and for NATO as well.
But of course Donald Trump has said, at various times, that the EU and for NATO are useless organizations. His sympathies may lie with Orban, who thumbs his nose at them almost every day, but that still may not help Trump:
Orban may indeed sign military equipment and gas deals with the United States during his visit. But judging from his previous unpredictable and anti-American actions, he may not. And even if some deals are agreed, the fact that Orban is continuing to essentially help implement Russian foreign policy shows Budapest is unlikely to become a reliable partner or protector of U.S. interests.
Yes, but the same could be said of Donald Trump, because there are those he admires and those he despises:
For Trump, the real aim will likely be deepening ties to autocratic strongmen he publicly admires, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. In Orban’s case, both men share anti-immigration lines and the common interests of undermining independent news media and international institutions.
For his part, Orban is also seeking a credential-boosting photo-op ahead of EU parliamentary elections this month. He is jockeying for more power within his voting bloc, the European People’s Party, suggesting he and fellow members from Italy and perhaps France would try to form a far-right coalition around anti-migrant issues.
Hitler hooked up with Mussolini. Orban might hook up with Salvini. Orban might hook up Marine Le Pen in France, since Philippe Pétain is long gone. It’ll be just like old times. It’ll be a new axis.
But this time it will be an axis our president loves, as the New York Times’ Benjamin Novak and Patrick Kingsley explain here:
Orban’s welcome at the White House is seen by Mr. Trump’s critics as emblematic of the president’s preference for strongman leaders who seek to undermine the liberal international order.
“This visit is par for the course in terms of this administration’s interest in aligning itself with autocrats and would-be autocrats,” said Robert G. Berschinski, a former deputy assistant secretary of state under Mr. Obama, now a senior vice president at Human Rights First, a watchdog group.
That’s obvious. Trump keeps saying that “it’s love” with him and Kim. Everyone sees a murderous thug in North Korea, but not Donald Trump. That 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum should have been a warning. The legislature became “advisory” to the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan now decides what the laws are. The courts became “advisory” to Erdogan. Erdogan now decides what’s constitutional. A lot of journalists are now in jail. Erdogan has banned the teaching of evolution in their schools. Erdogan received a personal congratulatory phone call from President Trump. Orban gets a state visit.
Donald Trump was impressed by Erdogan, but he’s impressed with Vladimir Putin too. That guy’s a strong leader. Maybe he has had a few journalists murdered but we kill people too – and Trump admires Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. That guy knows how to handle the drug problem. His military and police just kill drug dealers – no trial, no evidence that they were drug dealers, just the word on the street. Duterte says he’s shot some of them himself, and thrown more than a few out of helicopters. And Trump is impressed with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi too – the President of Egypt, in office since 2014, because that democracy thing just wasn’t working out. The Egyptian people had tossed out the previous military leaders of the country and finally got democracy back, but then they elected a rather goofy member of the Muslim Brotherhood and had come to regret that. They turned to a military guy to run things, again, a guy who would say what’s what and that was that – no muss, no fuss. Trump and el-Sisi get along just fine. Donald Trump might be a little jealous of the guy – and of course Trump is not impressed with Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron or Theresa May and certainly not with Justine Trudeau. They’re weak leaders. They let their press say whatever their press wants to say. They let their people demonstrate in the streets, often against their own policies. They’re fools. Leaders like Erdogan and Orban are not. They’re strong.
But of course this isn’t that simple:
Mr. Orban’s invitation to the White House reflects a more complex knot of considerations than just a shared political outlook, analysts and diplomats said. An Oval Office meeting is one of the highest honors an American president can give an ally, and this one has been slow in coming.
The Hungarian prime minister is in fact the last leader in Central Europe to be invited to the White House under Mr. Trump, even though Mr. Orban was, in July 2016, the first foreign leader to endorse Mr. Trump’s candidacy for the presidency.
And the day after Mr. Orban’s visit, State Department officials will meet in Washington with a pair of center-right opposition politicians from Hungary who beat Mr. Orban’s party in two recent by-elections.
“This was much more difficult for Orban to get than people think,” said Andras Simonyi, a former Hungarian ambassador to the United States and NATO who now works as an academic in Washington.
“This silly idea that there is this unity between Trump and Orban is nonsense – Orban has been wanting this visit for two and a half years,” Mr. Simonyi added. “It’s embarrassing for Orban.”
There are issues:
A bipartisan group of senators, including the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James E. Risch, wrote to the president on Friday to warn of Hungary’s “downward democratic trajectory and the implications for U.S. interests in Central Europe.”
It’s the little things:
When two arms dealers were captured in Hungary, following an investigation by American law enforcement officials, Mr. Orban’s government angered American counterparts by extraditing the dealers to Russia instead of the United States.
And Trump shrugged? Who knows? Just cover for the boss:
Sensitive to the perception of embracing another illiberal autocrat, administration officials insisted during a conference call with reporters on Friday that the government had raised concerns about Mr. Orban’s actions at lower levels.
Trust them. They did. Really they did. But there’s a history here, starting, of course, with America’s Darth Vader:
Mr. Orban met at the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001 but was refused a formal Oval Office meeting with Mr. Bush in 2002, shortly before he lost power to the Hungarian socialist party. His successor, Ferenc Gyurcsany, was granted a White House visit with Mr. Bush in 2005. After Mr. Orban re-entered office in 2010 and began to subjugate the judiciary, take over the news media and gerrymander the electoral map, Mr. Orban was snubbed repeatedly by the Obama administration.
Without question, the Trump administration has been warmer to Mr. Orban, who shares with Mr. Trump a dislike of immigration, independent institutions that can check his power and international institutions that they say undermine national sovereignty.
And suddenly that fascist axis is back again, and we’re on their side now:
Last Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany with only a few hours of notice and instead made a quick trip to Iraq – a decision perceived in Germany as a snub. He announced the same day that he would meet this week with Mr. Putin in Russia.
Last June, Mr. Orban was granted a phone call with Mr. Trump. In July, the State Department canceled funding for independent Hungarian news outlets that threatened to loosen Mr. Orban’s grip on the Hungarian news media.
We’ll snub weak leaders, the fools who allow democracy in their countries, and help this guy shut down the free press there, and we’ll send the right people over there, except that idea needs some work:
To head the State Department section on European affairs, Mr. Trump in 2017 named A. Wess Mitchell, an advocate of friendlier ties with European Union nations, like Hungary and Poland, whose governments oppose the liberal forces that hold sway within the European Union. But Mr. Mitchell resigned this year and is due to be replaced by a career diplomat, Philip T. Reeker, who has displayed no public affection for the Orban administration.
Trump will have to fix that, but he has the ambassador he wants:
Mr. Trump’s apparent affinity for the likes of Mr. Orban owes something to his envy of leaders who are rarely challenged at home.
“I can tell you – knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years – he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orban has, but he doesn’t,” David Cornstein, Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Hungary, said in an interview published in The Atlantic on Thursday.
Trump’s ambassador to Hungary did just say that he’s known Trump for decades and knows that Trump would love to be a fascist dictator, and it doesn’t seem fair that he can’t be one, yet, under present circumstances.
But all of his might not matter much:
Mr. Berschinski, the former State Department official, said that an Oval Office meeting was likely to have little effect on Hungarian policy, and some current officials at the department say privately that they agree.
“Viktor Orban is joining an increasingly long line of leaders – from Vladimir Putin to Mohammed bin Salman to Rodrigo Duterte to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – that President Trump will say positive things about without getting much in return,” Mr. Berschinski said.
That may be so, but perhaps Donald Trump doesn’t want anything in return. Maybe he’s just signaling admiration. And he seems to want all Americans to consider what he sees as admirable – leaders who defend blood and soil and take no prisoners. Donald Trump may be asking Americans to consider whether we were on the right side all those years ago. There is a new axis forming – Kim and Putin and Orban and Erdogan and Duterte and all the rest. Should we be part of that? After all, some things never really change.