All but ignored on this side of the Atlantic, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán recently summed up one of the presidential campaign’s most critical and least-discussed issues—U.S. support for the frontline NATO states of Hungary and Poland against political assaults from their allies and ours in the European Union. Our national security is at stake in the outcome.
“American Democrats [and] the American Left, together with the elites of Western Europe,” Mr. Orbán observed, are working to impose their “world vision, choice of values and concepts—including . . . views on families . . . migration . . . work . . . unemployment—on countries that have a different thinking.” He meant Hungary and Poland.
These countries, he continued, have been targets of the European Union’s “liberal [in the radical woke sense] imperialism,” that is, the EU’s hostility to what Americans would call socially conservative and economically populist governments that are, as Americans are, jealous of their sovereignty.
The strength of the NATO Alliance will turn on America’s choice on this question. Does the United States support the corrosive assault by what might be called “Big Europe” (Germany, France, and Eurocrats in Brussels) on “New Europe” (Hungary, Poland, and the continent’s other nation-state supporters)? Or should we help build up New Europe’s economic robustness and sovereign vitality, so these countries remain full and vibrant partners—for both the EU and us—in defending the still-challenged frontiers of freedom?
And while differences on this question between congressional Republicans and Democrats are not as clear as Orbán believes, the line between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden could not be sharper.
On the one hand Trump himself has honored and supported the legitimacy of Central Europe’s sovereign dignity and national values throughout his term. His July 6, 2017 address in Poland set the tone.
“A strong Poland is a blessing to the nations of Europe,” he said. In a clear reference to Brussels, President Trump added, “The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.”
Later he continued, “if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak, and we will not survive. If anyone forgets the critical importance of these things, let them come to one country that never has. Let them come to Poland.”
Biden has adopted the opposite tone. On June 22, 2018, during a speech in Copenhagen titled “Democracy in an Age of Authoritarianism,” he dismissively grouped Poland and Hungary with “Putin’s Russia . . . [and] the People’s Republic of China” in a blanket denunciation. It was an unbelievable moment. An aspiring president characterized two NATO allies as enemies in a new Cold War.
Woke Europe and woke America both know which side they are on. For the last five years, critics from Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post and the Atlantic to virtually every reporter at the New York Times have reflexively referred to the current Polish and Hungarian governments with terms like “dictatorial power” and “authoritarian-minded.” Those particular epithets were thrown at the Orbán government when the Hungarian parliament gave the prime minister the same authority to address the pandemic that every U.S. governor has received and that the parliament has since rescinded. They reflect the over-the-top denunciations typical of the global press when dealing with conservative and nationally centered governments, particularly those of Central Europe.
My colleague, Anna Wellisz, has written of Europe’s “schizophrenic discomfort” with Poland and Hungary. Last spring, this psychosis degenerated into theater of the absurd when the Polish government was denounced in official Brussels and the EU media for not declaring a “state of emergency” to deal with the COVID-19 crisis even as the Hungarian government was equally denounced for declaring it.
Of course, the real rub in Brussels was and is just as Orbán suggested. The Polish and Hungarian governments do not share the European Union’s position on immigration, family, and other hot button issues.
Both countries have, as British commentator and current chair of Budapest’s Danube Institute John O’Sullivan has written, “open and vigorous debate” with media “chock-full of criticisms of the government.” Indeed, in Poland much of the broadcast and print media are in non-Polish hands and are harshly criticalof the government.
And far from elections that are one-sided, in November last year the Polish opposition coalition won a single-vote majority in the upper chamber of the parliament. The month before in Hungary, the opposition scored major victories in mayoralty races, going into the voting with 9 of 47 mayors, coming out with 28.
According to the Washington Post, the key to the Hungarian opposition’s performance was not overcoming Orbán’s party, Fidesz, and its supposedly nefarious tricks. It was overcoming themselves. For the first time, the opposition parties had to put aside their squabbling rivalries and unite behind particular candidates.
As any student of Central Europe knows, unity and cooperation are not natural to the region’s politics. For years now, opposition parties in Poland and Hungry have been blaming their own electoral failings on the supposed authoritarianism of their victorious rivals. Accepting these finger-pointing attempts to delegitimize the rightward turns of the two countries may serve the purposes of Eurocrats and defeated candidates for national office who seek senior-level employment in the halls of the EU and accolades from an allied media. It serves no American interest to fall for it.
So, what should American policy to Hungary and Poland be over the next four years? I would answer, assist them in strengthening their independence. This comes down to three objectives: Energy security, military security, and political security.
Energy security means abundant access to oil and natural gas from places other than Russia. The Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, the North Sea: All claim plentiful reserves of much higher quality gas than does Russia. Pipelines should be built from each into Central Europe. It was a failure of vision and policy that this critical imperative went unnoticed until President Trump took office and called out Germany on the strategic implications of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Military security prioritizes the United States putting troops on permanent deployment into the region—a clear statement that what Russia did to Ukraine will not escalate or happen elsewhere. In June, President Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda agreed to add 1,000 troops to the 4,500 rotational NATO forces already there. Yet that these forces are rotational, living in temporary facilities on Polish military bases, suggests hesitation—an opportunity for Vladimir Putin to test our resolve. It is time to build a U.S. base.
Political security means signaling to countries resisting the EU’s authoritarian tendencies that they have viable alternatives. Completing a free trade deal with the Brexited United Kingdom would give that kind of signal.
In the name of strengthening democracy in Central Europe, Biden’s clueless policies would undermine democracy and NATO, too. President Trump has shown strength and sophistication in standing up to the worst tendencies of the Brussels Eurocracy and supporting Poland and Hungry on an issue in which American security is directly involved.
Orbán understands this struggle and its stakes. We should, too.