David Pressman

Address on U.S.-Hungary Relations on the 25th Anniversary of Hungary’s Accession to NATO

delivered 14 March 2024, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary



Excellencies, representatives of the diplomatic corps, representatives of the American business community (Hungary’s second largest foreign job creator), colleagues, distinguished guests.

Thank you for joining us this afternoon to take stock of 25 years of Hungary’s membership in the most successful military alliance in the history of the world.

In particular, I’d like to thank Minister Géza Jeszenszky for his poignant remarks. I always listen closely to what Minister Jeszenszky has to say, and I always learn something from doing so. I’d also like to thank our panelists Péter Krekó, Dóra Győrffy and Zsuzsanna Végh, as well as Ben Novak for your fascinating discussions and serving as our moderator. Finally, thank you to the Democracy Institute for hosting us today.

Just five years ago, these halls were filled with the best and brightest students, studying at the preeminent university in all of Central Europe. This is still happening, but it is happening 250 kilometers west of here in Vienna. Central European University once belonged in Hungary, which prided itself as being at the heart of Central Europe, but the fact that Central European University moved further to the west as Hungary opened eastward feels significant. Where there were once Hungarian students cramming for exams down the hall …there is now a nice brunch spot.

While I won’t spend much time on the saga of what the Hungarian government put this university through, over the objections of the previous U.S. Administration, I think it is fitting to mention because it epitomizes the sacrifice of something great in exchange for -- honestly, it is hard for me to understand. In exchange for political points? For talking points? Whatever was gained, it is clear that Hungary lost when it lost these promising students.

It is fitting to mention CEU’s history, because it is not a unique story in Hungary.

Just over 100 kilometers from here, members of the U.S. Armed Forces are living and working alongside their Hungarian counterparts at Pápa Air Base.

These brave, young men and women, along with other American servicemembers currently deployed at Camp Croft, have traveled thousands of miles from their hometowns to defend America and its interests, wherever that may take them. They come to the very frontier of the Transatlantic Alliance from American cities and towns most Hungarians have never heard of. Places like: Moline, Illinois; Mena, Arkansas; Milburn, Oklahoma; Shelbyville, Indiana.

Each and every one of them have taken an oath to defend their country, but they have done something greater. They not only have an obligation, if necessary, to risk their lives for their country, for the United States, but if called upon to do so, for our NATO Allies. These courageous men and women are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Allies of the United States of America. For Hungary. For Hungarians.

This commitment should not be taken lightly. It represents a living commitment to protect Hungarians by America’s sons and daughters. Hungary is in the club of democracies sworn to protect one another, a full-fledged member of the most successful military alliance the world has ever known. Hungary is far from alone.

And how are these young American servicemembers from Moline and Shelbyville, and Milburn, and Mena welcomed here in Hungary?

On the one hand, they have been welcomed warmly by their counterparts in the Hungarian military, as well as by the Hungarian people more broadly, who understand that deployments like this are a reflection of the strong ties between the Hungarian and American peoples.

On the other hand, for more than three years, in violation of our Defense Cooperation Agreement, the Hungarian government has not allowed these young soldiers to get license plates for their family cars, instead forcing them to pay tens of thousands of forints out of their pocket every month for temporary registrations. Not because of bureaucracy or red tape. Because the Hungarian government has made the political decision to do so.

Yes, you heard me right. I’m talking about license plates.

Of course, this speech isn’t about license plates, but this issue is indicative of the current, concerning state of Hungary’s relationship with its allies.

It has not always been this way. And it does not need to remain so.

As we reflect on 25 years of our alliance, let’s look at where we have been. America’s friendship with Hungary goes back centuries. In 2021, our nations celebrated 100 years of diplomatic relations, but our relationship stretches back much further. When brave Americans fought for their independence from the British Empire, it was Hungarian nobleman Mihály Kováts who helped develop and lead -- and ultimately died alongside -- the U.S. cavalry in the American Revolution.

During the American Civil War, President Lincoln’s affirmation in the Gettysburg Address that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth” took inspiration in that dark hour from the great Hungarian reformer and democratic revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth, who said: “All for the people, and all by the people.”

America today is home to immigrants from all over the world, including a vibrant and proud Hungarian diaspora that sought refuge from totalitarianism in the 1930s, found safe haven after the 1956 revolution, and became an integral part of the American family.

They include visionary thinkers like scientists Edward Teller and Leó Szilárd, mathematician John von Neumann, cinematic giants Michael Curtiz and Adolph Zukor; and technology pioneer Andrew Grove, who escaped to the United States after Moscow crushed Hungary’s 1956 revolution and became one of the key architects of the development of the computer industry. They also include great American innovators like our newest Nobel laureate Katalin Karikó, who left Communist Hungary for the freedom of the United States in 1985 so that she could continue her research into mRNA vaccines, pushing forward advancements that decades later would save countless lives in the fight against COVID-19.

What unites these connections between our two nations is the shared longing of our peoples for liberty and democracy. And a determination for freedom that is unrelenting and defining.

Hungary’s long road to freedom reached a milestone nearly 25 years ago when it was welcomed into the Transatlantic Alliance. At the time, many -- including myself -- regarded former Warsaw Pact countries joining the Washington Treaty as righting a historic wrong. Hungary had found itself on the wrong side of its historical destiny, excluded from Europe, left out of the community of democracies.

Viktor Orbán, who was prime minister when Hungary joined NATO in 1999, understood this. When he delivered a speech at the first raising of the Hungarian flag as a NATO member in Brussels, he said, “I cannot help feeling that history is rewarding the efforts of Hungarians in 1956, in accepting Hungary as an Ally in NATO,” into what he called “the Alliance of the West.”

Prime Minister Orbán lamented the long years Hungary’s boat had tarried in open waters, vulnerable. Hungary may have become free in 1991, but it continued to be buffeted by threatening forces. But, by joining NATO, Prime Minister Orbán affirmed: “We now finally have anchored our country to the Western coast.”

Orbán also emphasized the importance of establishing democracy and the rule of law alongside neighbors that had likewise emerged from forty years of communist dictatorship. And I quote Prime Minister Orbán “A solid pillar of our joining the Alliance is that we, [Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic,] succeeded in building such countries,” he stated -- that is, democratic countries.

And he was right. Hungary was not admitted to NATO because of its tragic history, but because of its commitment to a democratic future and its ability to contribute to the security of the Transatlantic community of democracies. A community from which Hungary now finds itself increasingly isolated.

Where does this relationship stand today? This brings me back to the license plate issue with which I began my remarks.

This license plate issue has remained unresolved for over three years. Minsters of this government have assured us it would be solved, only later to concede that solving it was beyond their power, on hold from the top.

Hungary’s boat may be firmly anchored, but American servicemembers can’t register their cars.

In the grand scheme of things, the issue with the license plates should be a triviality. A bit of red tape easily solved, but for some reason it isn’t. It isn’t because the Hungarian government doesn’t want it to be.

But, as I said earlier, this speech is not about license plates. It is about an Ally that behaves unlike any other. It is about a government that labels and treats the United States an “adversary” while making policy choices that increasingly isolate it from friends and allies.

This speech is about a long-time friend and Ally saying and doing things that undermine trust and friendship.

We cannot ignore it when the Speaker of Hungary’s National Assembly asserts that Putin’s war in Ukraine is actually “led by the United States.” We cannot ignore a sitting minister referring to the United States as a corpse whose nails continue to grow. We can neither understand nor accept the Prime Minister identifying the United States as a “top adversary” of our Ally, Hungary. Or his assertion that the United States government is trying to overthrow the Hungarian government -- literally, to “defeat” him.

Some say we should watch what Hungary does, not what it says. But you see, that is now precisely the problem: I am not talking merely about what the government says, but what it does, its actions.

The systematic takeover of independent media, where oligarchs purchased media outlets only to gift them to a government-controlled foundation, while the few outlets that remain independent face investigations, tax audits, and the loss of advertising revenue -- these are not words, but actions.

Ensuring all aspects of government power -- from procurement, to licensing, to tourism subsidies, to concessions, to tax and audit actions, to regulatory policy -- provide favorable treatment for companies owned by party leaders or their families, in-laws, or old friends -- these are not words, but actions.

The “Defense of Sovereignty Act” that threatens anyone involved in “democratic debate” or “advocacy” in defense -- not of Hungary’s sovereignty -- but only of a single party’s effort to monopolize public discourse. Even if not fully implemented, this law’s mere existence serves its purpose -- to frighten people into silence. Not words, but actions.

Equating “independence” with “opposition,” independent media in Hungary gets labeled opposition media. Independent non-governmental organizations get labeled political partisans. Independent judges who voice opinions unfavorable to the government, or meet with the American Ambassador, are labeled politicians funded and directed from abroad.

So, rhetorical shell games that tell you to look anywhere other than where the actual ball is hidden was typical of the Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War. Russia continues that tragic tradition today. But this is not something we expect i from allies.

No doubt you’ve noticed at this point that we do not ordinarily give speeches like this in other allied countries, because with other allied countries what we have is dialogue.

This government appears to have little interest in constructive dialogue to solve these problems. With other allies we engage, we collaborate, we work together -- even where we have differences. Here, that doesn’t work -- until we act.

And that is why the United States’ policy in Hungary is best understood as a continuum of three elements: a continuous effort to engage by seeking dialogue; a commitment to speaking with candor about what we are seeing; and a readiness to act in response to choices the government is making. This will not change: we will continue to engage, we will continue to speak clearly, and we will continue to act in support of our interests, in that order. If this government engages in meaningful dialogue, the rest would not be so necessary.

And this is precisely what we have been doing. During the Trump administration, the United States warned Hungary about the dangers of hosting the Russian International Investment Bank in Budapest. We continued these warnings after Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, the government decided not to wind down, but to double down; not to close the Kremlin platform, but to increase Hungary’s investment in it.

After literally years of traditional Ally-to-Ally dialogue, we met the reality of Hungary’s policy choice to deepen its relations with this opaque Russian entity despite Putin’s war on Ukraine and were left with no choice but to act. We did this not to punish Hungary, but to address a security issue multiple U.S. administrations had hoped to handle through dialogue with our Ally, but could not.

This past April, we sanctioned this Russian bank, extraordinary as it was to do so to an entity within the European Union and hosted by a NATO Ally.

Twenty-four hours after we sanctioned the bank, Hungary pulled out.

Another example: across multiple U.S. Administrations, the United States has been engaging Hungary about security vulnerabilities associated with its expedited naturalization program’s passport issuance. Despite extensive engagement in the Trump Administration and the Biden Administration, Hungary failed to fully address the United States’ security concerns.

So, we were again left with no alternative but to act.

The previous Administration instituted a requirement for all Hungarian passport holders born outside of Hungary to obtain a visa in order to travel to the United States. When that didn’t prompt action, last June we limited the validity of Visa Waiver Program ESTA approvals for Hungarian travelers. This is a step we never wanted to take. Both nations benefit tremendously from our people-to-people ties, and we want more Hungarian travelers to the United States, not fewer. But we could not continue earnest dialogue that led nowhere, as a real security threat persisted. Only after acting did we begin to see progress in addressing this security concern.

Now Hungary’s allies are warning Hungary of the dangers of its close and expanding relationship with Russia. If this is Hungary’s policy choice -- and it has become increasingly clear that it is with the Foreign Minister’s sixth trip to Russia since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and with his next trip to Russia scheduled in two weeks, following his engagement with Russia’s Foreign Minister earlier this month, and the Prime Minister’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in China -- we will have to decide how best to protect our security interests, which, as Allies, should be our collective security interests.

These legitimate security concerns -- shared by Hungary’s thirty-one Allies -- cannot be ignored.

Hungary is also alone on the defining issue of European security of the last quarter century, Russia’s war in Ukraine. As a friend and Ally, Hungary’s concerns about the war in Ukraine should make it a valuable voice in NATO discussions, guiding the Alliance as it navigates these troubled waters. As a neighbor to this war, as a country with long historic ties to Ukraine, Hungary should be a leader in this discussion. Instead, NATO is working around Hungary, as it did when it convened the NATO-Ukraine Commission last year. 30 countries -- now 31 other countries -- won’t be stopped.

It is not just that we disagree about Russia’s war in Ukraine. It is that Russia’s war in Ukraine made it clear we can no longer ignore longstanding disagreements that are undermining our relationship and our shared security. The war has not divided us, but it has revealed points of tension that have for too long been left unaddressed. Neither of us can afford to wait. In the current moment, with the stakes so high, the United States is engaging Hungary, with clarity, with candor, and when necessary, with action.

Hungary says it wants peace and that is why it is openly calling for the U.S. and other allies to cut off Ukraine from military support in order to force an immediate ceasefire and peace negotiations.

The United States also wants peace. We want this war to end. But the Hungarian proposal does not stand up to reality. Does Hungary truly believe that if our partners and allies stop our military support for Ukraine as it fights on its own territory for its very survival that Russia would then come to the negotiating table? Or would Russia do what it has done elsewhere and seize more of their land, pillage more of their property, deprive more of their people of freedom, kidnap more of their children? The Hungarian policy is based on a fantasy that disarming Ukraine will stop Putin. History shows it would do the reverse. It is not a proposal for peace; it is capitulation.

This is not the approach of the Transatlantic Alliance, an alliance that stood firm in the face of the Soviet empire and emerged intact and ascendant while the Soviet Union crumbled.

This is a moment in history so significant that countries that long resisted joining NATO have jumped at the chance to join this powerful alliance and likewise secure their futures. Because they understand what it means. They understand what Hungary, 25 years ago, well understood.

Hungary could stand with Ukraine, alongside all of its NATO Allies, to demand real peace, true peace, which can only be based in freedom rather than standing beside Russia and calling for surrender and subjugation.

At the same time Hungarian officials diminish an actual invasion of a democratic country, senior Hungarian officials conjure stories of interference in Hungary’s own internal affairs. Yet they seem to have no qualms about flagrantly engaging in such interference themselves.

Prime Minister Orbán, who on the one hand baselessly claims the United States government is trying to overthrow his government, publicly calls for the political defeat of the President of the United States and actively participates in U.S. partisan political events. Hungary advocates for electoral candidates around the world from Poland to Brazil, all while decrying foreign interference here at home.

Who leads the United States Government -- or any government -- is a question for the people of that country alone to decide.

My first boss at the State Department, Secretary Madeleine Albright, was known for her blunt one-liners. She said that when she became Secretary of State her political organs were removed. Her point was this: at the State Department we don’t do politics. We do policy. And for good reason. She would describe American foreign policy like an aircraft carrier. It may tilt in one direction or another depending on the administration in office, but it does not make quick turns between parties. Just like we have enduring alliances based on core values, the United States has enduring interests that run deep and transcend party politics. Hungary’s government would have heard that loud and clear from a recent bipartisan congressional delegation, had they agreed to receive them, which perhaps is why they didn’t.

While Hungary attempts to wait out those it disagrees with, whether in the United States or the European Union, the rest of the world is moving forward. While the Orbán government may want to wait out the United States Government, the United States will certainly not wait out the Orbán administration.

While Hungary waits, we will act.

I have addressed where we have been and where we are. I have said before that I am an optimist, and this speech is an optimistic one. I would like to turn to a positive vision of where this relationship should be.

In short, we want what polls consistently show the vast majority of Hungarians want: a close relationship between the United States and Hungary, rooted in democratic values and shared security and prosperity. Exactly what the Prime Minister said he wanted 25 years ago. And that is what we still want today.

The United States and Hungary will not agree on everything, and that’s okay. We don’t agree with any country on everything. But, as Allies, we should agree on the big things, the things that matter most, and on that basis, we can work through any differences on anything else. We should be mutually concerned for the well-being of democratic values, institutions, and of our relationship -- regardless of who has the privilege of temporarily leading either of our governments. This last part of this speech is how we can do that, how we can get there.

First, there must be a political decision that this is a relationship -- Hungary’s relationship with the United States -- that Hungary’s government wishes to improve. We have already made that decision. Unfortunately, we see no indication that the government of Hungary has done the same.

The United States cares about Hungary, we care about Hungarians, we admire and are in awe of your culture and history, and we want a close relationship. We’re not really asking for much: transparency, dialogue, nonpartisanship, and commitment to democracy would suffice. We are prepared to continue to engage, reach out, pragmatically work to find a path together.

Second, we must take seriously concerns about security issues expressed by Allies, not use them as leverage to secure unrelated and parochial political objectives. Whether license plates for our troops or Kremlin-platforms residing in Budapest or travel security vulnerabilities, we should respect concerns raised and work to resolve them.

Third, we need to recognize that a relationship between states, as any relationship, changes and evolves over time. How we speak about each other matters. There is room to criticize -- no government is perfect, including my own. The United States’ great strength has been our readiness to confront our shortcomings and debate them openly. While the Hungarian government’s wild rhetoric in state-controlled media may incite passion, or ignite an electoral base, the choice to issue, on a daily basis, dangerously unhinged anti-American messaging is a policy choice, and it risks changing Hungary’s relationship with America.

In light of these systemic challenges in our relationship U.S. policy in Hungary will continue with the only approach that produces results: outreach, candor, and accountability.

We will continue to reach out to the government of this country for pragmatic discussions about how to normalize this relationship, and urge that a political mandate be given for those discussions to produce results.

We will also speak clearly about what is happening and what we are seeing. We will describe what we see in Hungary and in Hungary’s relationship with its Allies. And we will do so unflinchingly.

And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, we will not wait. While Hungary may choose to wait out the United States, the United States will not do the same.

The United States has not made the sacred pledge to shed American blood to defend French people or German people or Hungarian people because we value these peoples or cultures or languages or religions or cuisines more than those of other countries not in the alliance.

We make that pledge because we share a way of life as free people able to choose their own government; not as nations, but as democracies. We commit to defend one another, not because of what divides us as different nations, but because of what unites us in the family of democracies. And because these commitments protect both of our countries and our peoples.

The American servicemembers at Pápa Air Base could not find Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg on a map (and certainly could not pronounce it!) any more than most Hungarians could identify Moline, Illinois or Mena, Arkansas. But they have pledged their lives to this Alliance of democracies.

The United States values our alliance with Hungary, and our long partnership with the Hungarian people. From Kováts and the U.S. calvary, to Kossuth and the Gettysburg Address; from Cardinal Mindszenty and those who sought protection from authoritarianism, to Katalin Karikó and those who ended an unthinkable pandemic -- our history interweaves us, our alliance binds us, our ideas about freedom and independence unite us, from Shelbyville to Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg.

We needn’t agree on everything, and we won’t. We needn’t even agree on most things. But there is clearly work to be done.

We live in turbulent times. No one can doubt that. But it is in these difficult times when friendships and alliances are most seriously tested that they might also be most strongly forged. This is not a time for political games. It is a time for steadfast resolve.

While a nautical metaphor may be an awkward fit here, in beautiful but landlocked Hungary, that is where your Prime Minister began 25 years ago, and that is where I shall conclude today. Hungary’s ship proudly “anchored” itself to the West 25 years ago. And it belongs there. But this government’s actions and rhetoric make it sound like it does not feel so firmly anchored. The United States would not be acting as your ally if we did not forthrightly express concern about the course Hungary is charting, through rough seas of its own choosing. We anchored together 25 years ago as democratic Allies; it remains our hope that we sail forward together as part of a stronger, and now larger, democratic Alliance -- a choice that remains up to Hungary, its government and its people.

Thank you for your time.

Original Text Source: hu.usembassy.gov

Page Updated: 4/17/24

U.S. Copyright Status: Text, = Public domain.
































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