By Clayton Hudak
US and Hungarian Soldiers participating in a spur ride in 2017. Photo courtesy of Capt. John Strickland.
In an increasingly multipolar world, treaty-bound allies of the United States are increasingly pursuing policies that favor Russia and China. What role does Civil Affairs (CA) play in this geopolitical environment, and how can the United States use CA to reverse this trend? Perhaps an analysis of Hungarian nationalism and its shift towards Russia and China holds the answer. As a culturally western nation and a member of both NATO and the European Union (EU) Hungary represents this dilemma in extremis. As a former-Warsaw Pact country, invaded by the Soviet Union in 1956 in response to a pro-democracy revolution, Hungary should have no love for the Russians. However, it has chosen to distance itself from its economic and political allies in favor of Russia and China. This unlikely juxtaposition makes Hungary uniquely suited to serve as a case study for this phenomenon.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his nationalist Fidesz Party have controlled the Hungarian Parliament since 2010. During this time, he has pushed for increasingly closed borders within the Schengen Zone as a response to the European Refugee Crisis, all while seeking the ability to negotiate bilateral trade deals outside of the European Union. This fracturing allows China to pursue its Belt and Road Initiative deep into the EU. This also presents Russia with the opportunity to weaken the EU as an institution using Information Warfare (INFOWAR) techniques already proven in Ukraine. Recently, Prime Minister Orban was granted emergency powers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, giving him the ability to rule by decree.[i] This step towards authoritarianism furthers his nationalist agenda and deepens the rift between Fidesz and the rest of the European Community.[ii] As the preeminent member of NATO (21 states share membership in both organizations), the United States must act to preserve the stability of the EU in Eastern Europe. Civil Affairs elements should counter anti-EU sentiments with engagement strategies and programs that reinforce the value that NATO and EU membership offer without undermining the Hungarian government. Failure to do so will allow our near-peer rivals to isolate and exploit our allies under the guise of national self-determination.
Perhaps the most ominous manifestation of Hungarian nationalism occurred in 2019. Hungary vetoed Ukraine's bid for EU membership. Ostensibly this was due to a Ukrainian language law that mandated Ukrainian as the primary language of education and other official functions.[iii] Orban viewed this law as an assault on the rights of ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine. In this manner, Hungarian nationalism directly contradicts NATO's goal of limiting Russia's sphere of influence across the continent. One may ask why a NATO ally and EU member would stoop to such petty squabbles and play so blatantly into Russia's hand. Perhaps Brookings Institution fellow, James Kirchech has the answer, “Orban is a political visionary, plotting a potential post-Atlantic, post-NATO, post-E.U. future for his country. Anticipating a time when the West will be disintegrated and overrun by Muslims, he is reorienting Hungary toward the authoritarian East.”[iv] Prime Minister Orban assesses that his nation faces the classic prisoner's dilemma and views a commitment to the European Union as an albatross on Hungary's neck. Such an approach will only isolate Hungary from its real allies and expose it to the exploitative practices of the Kremlin and Beijing.
Hungary's longest-standing grievance with the EU stems from the migrant crisis of the early 2010s. Hungarian nationalists resent the influx of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East and reject the notion that Hungary should share responsibility for resettling migrants. Instead, they have taken measures to limit freedom of movement across its borders.[v] This sentiment runs contrary to the EU's founding principles of free movement of goods and people, as well as its commitment to act as a bastion of human rights. Nationalists such as Prime Minister Orban seek to cement their positions of power by shifting the narrative to one which places Hungary as a victim of a tyrannical Germany. In this narrative, the EU is nothing more than an unfair institution seeking to burden Hungary with violent foreigners.[vi] Us versus them tactics may galvanize the population against foreigners, but doing so isolates the nation from the largest market in the global economy.
Hungary's search for EU alternatives extends beyond political maneuvering. They have expanded their search for economic independence as well. Orban's authoritarian predilections make Hungary a natural bridge between the EU and Russia, offering Vladamir Putin a backdoor around sanctions.[vii]This search for independence from the EU has also placed Hungary at the center of the 5G telecom controversy. Despite security concerns from France and Germany, Hungary has partnered with Chinese telecom giant Huawei to architect its 5G network. Hungarian Trade Minister Peter Szijjarto rejects concerns as "hypocritical" and another example of Western Europe stifling the growth of the east. (One should note that German and British telecom companies also partnered with Huawei in Hungary.)[viii][ix] The natural progression of Hungary's shift eastward places it as the western terminus of China's Belt and Road initiative. On the surface, this self-determination postures Hungary as a key junction in the most ambitious infrastructure project of the century. However, for Hungary to favor China over the EU puts it at risk for debt traps and cyber-espionage.[x]
Is NATO Membership Enough?
It can be argued that membership in the EU does not equate to security. Hungary is a NATO ally and enjoys the protections of Article 5. Great Britain's exit from the trade bloc has raised numerous concerns, but security has not been one of them. Why then should Hungarian self-determination be so heavily scrutinized?
Simply put, there is no comparison between Great Britain and the former-Warsaw Pact nations. Prior to Brexit, the UK was the 2nd largest economy in the EU. It has historical ties to the United States, other Western European nations, and former colonies that go back centuries. Hungary lacks the UK's economic stability and diversity of historical allies. Eastern Europe's location on the periphery of the EU opens it to predatory behavior by China and Russia.[xi] In no uncertain terms, the EU and NATO have offered Hungary the most independence, security, and power that it has seen since the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hungarian nationalists are actively flirting with disaster. Yes, Article 5 protects Hungary from invasion, but if foreign influence reduces them to pawns against the West, Russia has no need to invade. For NATO to be effective, all members must actively resist foreign influence within their borders.
While Victor Orban rejects the European Community, a 2018 poll suggests that the Hungarian citizenry does not. Over 60% of those surveyed view EU membership as a net positive, while only 40% approve of Orban. [xii] This dichotomy presents a dilemma for Civil Affairs Soldiers operating in Hungary. There is a population generally sympathetic to the US, while the government actively scorns its allies. The Prime Minister does not appreciate the traditional EUCOM goal of countering-Russian influence, but as a head of state, he must be respected. How then does CA operate within a NATO partner when that partner does not support NATO goals? Instead of an aggressive and overt counter-Russian strategy, CA should instead reinforce the value of NATO membership. Teams must map pro- and anti- EU/NATO sentiment using civil reconnaissance and identify vulnerable populations. Teams will then partner with the appropriate Hungarian government agency to address issues local to those vulnerable areas from the ground up. Additionally, grass-roots education campaigns centering on INFOWAR awareness, the proliferation of debt-diplomacy, and cybersecurity would serve to counter foreign narratives running counter our own. In this manner, CA forces can subtly demonstrate the value of NATO at the individual level, and with our PSYOP partners draw parallels to the role that the EU and NATO both share in protecting democracy in the 21st Century. Civil Affairs advocates must continue to reinforce to policy- and military decision-makers that the branch is a low-cost, high-output means to counter anti-NATO and anti-EU sentiment in Hungary, and beyond.
While these recommendations primarily focus on reinforcing the value of multilateral organizations such as NATO and the EU, a similar methodology can be applied to any nation where the government's sentiment towards the United States or other sources of regional stability, is incongruous to the population's sentiments. In these situations, local solutions to local problems may not be the key to long-term stability. Civil Affairs elements can identify regions where the government derives its base of power through civil reconnaissance. Through Civil Information Management, teams can develop programs that specifically address the grievances of said population. Then, these programs can be enacted to support US Embassy goals and reinforce the value that the United States and other regional institutions provide to the region. Failure to do so will allow regional and global rivals to exploit our allies. Civil Affairs teams offer a resource-efficient and low-profile method to gain and maintain contact with the civil population. A real-time flow of civil information allows US government institutions to continuously assess and adjust its actions in a country to ensure that the value of US-Host Nation partnership is evident both at the highest levels of government and at the local and individual level.
[i] Sherhan, Yasmeen. “The EU Watches as Hungary Kills Democracy.” The Atlantic (2020, April 02). https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/04/europe-hungary-viktor-orban-coronavirus-covid19-democracy/609313/. [ii] Tharoor, Ishaan. “How Victor Orban became the Real Threat to the West.” The Washington Post (2018, April 06). https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/04/06/how-victor-orban-became-the-real-threat-to-the-west/. [iii] Dunai, Marton. “Hungary to block Ukraine's NATO membership over language law.” Reuters (2019, December 04) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-nato-hungary/hungary-to-block-ukraines-nato-membership-over-language-law-idUSKBN1Y823N. [iv] Kirchick, James. “Is Hungary becoming a rogue state in the center of Europe?.” The Brookings Institute (2019, January 07). https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/01/07/is-hungary-becoming-a-rogue-state-in-the-center-of-europe/. [v] Buyon, Noah. “Hungary to Build (Another) Border Fence.” Foreign Policy (2017, February 24). https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/24/hungary-to-build-another-border-fence/. [vi] Surana, Kavintha. “Hungary Wants Foreign Workers, So Long as They Aren't Syrian Refugees” Foreign Policy (2016, September 2016). https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/09/15/hungary-wants-foreign-workers-so-long-as-they-arent-syrian-refugees/. [vii] Macri, John (2019, April 11), How Hungary's Path Leads to China's Belt and Road, The Diplomat, Retrieved from: https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/how-hungarys-path-leads-to-chinas-belt-and-road/ [viii] Szakacs, Gergely and Than, Krisztina. “Hungarian minister opens door to Huawei for 5G network rollout.” Reuters (2019, November 05) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-telecoms-huawei/hungarian-minister-opens-door-to-huawei-for-5g-network-rollout-idUSKBN1XF12U. [ix] Irish, John. “Hungary criticizes western Europe's 'hypocrisy' on China trade.” Reuters (2019, May 04). https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-europe-hungary/hungary-criticizes-western-europes-hypocrisy-on-china-trade-idUSKCN1ST24C. [x] Macri, John. “How Hungary's Path Leads to China's Belt and Road.” The Diplomat (2019, April 11). https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/how-hungarys-path-leads-to-chinas-belt-and-road/. [xi] Carpenter, Ted. “A Grave Threat to the NATO Alliance (And It's Not Russia's Military).” The National Interest (2014, November 13). https://nationalinterest.org/feature/grave-threat-the-nato-alliance-its-not-russias-military-11661. [xii] Ray, Julie. “Snapshot: EU Stronger than Orban in Hungary.” Gallop (2018, September 18). https://news.gallup.com/poll/242333/snapshot-stronger-footing-orban-hungary.aspx.
About the Author
CPT Clayton Hudak is a recent graduate of the Civil Affairs Qualification Course and is currently attending Russian language training at the U.S. John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Boston University in International Relations with a focus on European Security.
The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.