Hungary’s national independence is under attack, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Friday in connection with critical remarks recently made by US Senator John McCain.
If McCain had only made some “critical remarks,” the Hungarian government might not have summoned our envoy to lodge a complaint about what he said. As it happens, McCain seems to have called Orban a “neofascist dictator,” and unsurprisingly Orban was not pleased by this distorted and misleading characterization. Orban is an elected nationalist leader with some authoritarian tendencies, and the U.S. and other European governments have legitimate concerns about illiberal moves that Orban and his ruling party have used to consolidate their power in recent years. However, that makes him neither “neofascist” nor a dictator. That’s a ridiculous way to describe the head of government of a democratic allied country.
One can object to Hungary’s increasing economic ties to Russia without indulging in such hyperbole. If other Western governments want to persuade the Hungarian government to change its behavior, this is the worst way to go about it. Because Orban is a nationalist, he is definitely not going to respond well to being berated publicly by an American politician in these terms, and we are seeing just how badly he is responding to the slight. Thanks to this episode, Orban can even more easily dismiss any and all advice from Washington, and can present himself as a leader standing up to foreign pressure. McCain’s blunderbuss approach to diplomacy is an embarrassment for the U.S. and unfortunate for the future state of the relationship with Hungary.
McCain even has a fair point that the person nominated to be ambassador to Hungary is a woefully unqualified bundler, but at the moment it is McCain who has done more to damage relations with Hungary than anything the unqualified nominee could have done while in Budapest.