Understanding Hungarian foreign policy

Hungary under Viktor Orbán frequently makes headlines for its heterodox foreign policy and good relations with Russia and China that often put it at odds with the rest of the EU and NATO. Understanding the realist roots of its strategy are key.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is well-known within the West as an illiberal problem child whose attacks on the LGBT+ community, consolidation of his country’s media and democratic institutions, and opposition to sanctions on Russia have put him at odds with Brussels and Washington.  

Hungary—together with Turkey—has stonewalled Sweden’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). As media calls the Orbán government’s position “puzzling”, a senior European diplomat said there was “zero understanding” for Budapest’s opposition to Sweden joining and called it “an annoying sideshow”.  

For his part, Orbán has been remarkably clear about how his vision for Hungary’s grand strategy translates into his stances on various policy and diplomatic questions that may seem nonsensical without additional context.  

Realism with Hungarian characteristics  

Orbán has consulted academics and conservative think tank personnel associated with the realist school of thought within international relations theory—including the originator of offensive realism, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer—in crafting Hungary’s foreign policy. Although there are differing theories of realism, realist theories generally contend that states act to maximise their power and pursue national interests, especially security, and are sceptical of liberalism’s optimism about the efficacy of international organisations.  

Mearsheimer doubts geography will ever allow one country to attain true global hegemony and believes that countries that have achieved regional hegemony, like the United States, try to prevent the emergence of hegemons in other regions. Regional hegemons seek to maintain even balances of power in other regions so multiple local powers remain occupied among themselves rather than challenging the interests of the regional hegemon.  

Many of realism’s assumptions about how countries act underpin Orbán’s diagnosis of the current geopolitical moment and subsequent decisions. In a private Christmas dinner event for the Széll Kálmán Foundation, Viktor Orbán delivered a speech outlining this diagnosis which was later publicised by his political director, political scientist and member of parliament Balázs Orbán.  

In that speech, Orbán said he believed the unipolar, US-led neoliberal world order that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union is fatigued and unsustainable as its challengers—namely Russia and China—directly confront the West. Orbán wants Hungary to be a middle power, as opposed to a great power or superpower, in Central Europe but sees confrontation between the West and China and Russia as a threat to this.  

If a blocs-based international order like that of the Cold War is re-established, Hungary would struggle to maintain its relevance and could be relegated to role of a subordinate peripheral state. Decisions about political and economic relations would be principally made by bloc leaders, even though all bloc members would be affected by their consequences.  

“This is particularly bad news for the European Union as a whole, but especially for its peripheral states, because in such a system the centre not only controls the links across the blocs but also takes on the task of allocating resources,” Balázs Orbán noted. “In addition, any disruption in the supply chain of goods is first and most drastically felt in the periphery countries—and these countries have no means of changing the situation.” 

Resisting ‘decoupling’ 

Orbán sees the establishment of a bloc-based order as a threat to Hungary’s sovereignty and aspirations to becoming a fully developed economy. The key, then, is to preserve Hungary’s strategic independence by resisting ‘decoupling’ from economies deemed to be adversarial by the US in favour of continued connectivity with as many countries outside of NATO and the EU as possible.  

Hungary—along with Turkey, Azerbaijan, and most of Central Asia—is a member of the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS) and is among the most visible and active EU member states in Eurasia. It is also a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)—launched by Chinese leader Xi Jinping and headquartered in Beijing—despite US efforts to prevent its allies from joining. 

Orbán wants to maintain leverage within NATO and the EU, and his government sees the war in Ukraine as a threat to Hungary’s sovereignty for multiple reasons.  

For one, after European scepticism about US intelligence warning in early 2022 of an imminent Russian invasions of Ukraine, the EU and other West-aligned nations quickly rallied behind Ukraine with the US, sending military aid to Kyiv while targeting Russia with severe sanctions. 

Orbán condemned Moscow’s invasion but is concerned that these developments represent a return to blocs while the sanctions will affect peripheral countries like Hungary the most without assuring victory for Kyiv. 

In keeping with his realist assessments, Orbán said, “Only Russian-US talks can put an end to the conflict because Russia wants security guarantees” only Washington can give. He also said the EU “should not side with the Ukrainians, but position itself” between both Kyiv and Moscow. 

Hungary has been hit by high prices and disruptions to its energy supplies as a result of the war. Documents released in the Discord leaks reveal the US knew of a Ukrainian plot to blow up the Nord Stream pipeline to stop Europe’s dependence on Russian energy—a source of leverage for Moscow—and that Ukrainian president Zelensky suggested blowing up the Druzhba pipeline that provides oil to Hungary. 

Speaking about the alleged plan to destroy the Druzhba pipeline, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said, “Such a threat is obviously against Hungary’s sovereignty because the security of energy supply is a matter of sovereignty. Therefore, if someone calls for Hungary’s energy supply to be made impossible, they are in effect attacking Hungary’s sovereignty.”  

Other documents from the same leak revealed that Orbán called the US one of Hungary’s main adversaries. As Hungary continues to stall the expansion of the bloc it is already in, feuds with bloc leaders seem unlikely to subside unless Hungary changes its strategy.

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