Keeping your Friends Close: How Civil Affairs can ensure that our allies remain allies

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.

Political Distancing

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.

Economic Distancing

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]