Twenty Seventh Annual Mikulás Dinner

Remarks by Damon M. Wilson
Executive Vice President, Atlantic Council

Embassy of Hungary, Washington
November 30, 2018

DAMON WILSON: Thank you for that introduction Andrea. And thank you for your leadership and dedication to the cause of close bonds between the United States and Hungary. You’re a remarkable leader of this remarkable group.

And what a wonderful Master of Ceremonies we have; thank you Endre.

Ambassador László Szabó, and Ivonn, we are grateful not only for your hosting us here this evening, but for the conviction and vigor you bring to your post. As I plan to discuss this evening, we have our work cut out for us, and I’m delighted to have you as such an effective partner in our effort to bolster the US-Hungarian relationship.

I want to thank the Hungarian American Coalition, its board and members, Chair Dr. Virga and Chair Emerita Edith Lauer. This organization is blessed by leaders that bring such passion and determination to your cause.

And of course, it’s an honor to have Governor Pataki with us this evening. Thank you for your service.

I also want to acknowledge two women who have made and continue to make remarkable contributions to US-Hungarian relations, Ambassador April Foley and Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi. Your counsel on all things related to Hungary has been so valuable to me throughout my own career. 

And Max and Wendy Teleki. Thank you – not only for your leadership, but your friendship and partnership over the years. 

When Max asked me whether I would speak at the annual Mikulás dinner, I was surprised but quickly agreed. I agreed because I’ve long been inspired by Hungary and its people.

But even more so, I agreed because I’m. . .  unsatisfied.

Nearly twenty years after our nations forged a permanent bond of alliance, I’m not satisfied with the state of that alliance. And I agreed to speak, because I think we can do something about it.

If you are a casual consumer of news and not of Hungarian descent – which excludes probably everyone in the room – you would read the sensational headlines about Hungary and question whether we are even allies. Headlines focus on reports of democratic backsliding, or Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s criticism of the European Union or immigration. The op-ed pages refer to a meeting with Hungarian officials as “appeasement.”

Appeasement. Toward an ally. Something is wrong with that.

I’d like to reframe that narrative with you this evening and suggest a more constructive way forward. But to help you understand my thinking about the future, let me share some experiences from my past. 

Unlike most of you, I’m not able to trace my heritage to Hungary. Rather, I’m more Scotch-Irish, and come from South Carolina – I think that’s why I identify with the strong sense of identity and spirt of the Hungarian-American community.

But I did grow up as a child of the Cold War, detesting communism, something I learned from my best friend in third grade whose family fled Ceaușescu’s Romania. I believed that the captive nations of Europe would one day be liberated. I imagined what we could’ve done differently – how might we have extended the Soviet withdrawal from Austria in 1955 to include the withdrawal from Hungary? What if we had assisted in 1956 as so many Hungarians were led to believe we would?

Sadly, the 12 days of liberty Hungarians tasted that year ended in the tragedy of Soviet tanks in the streets of Budapest. Some 200,000 Hungarians fled their homeland, many making their way to the United States, enriching this nation.

As a high school student in 1989, as the Soviet Union began to crack, I watched Hungarians shelter East Germans fleeing persecution, providing the critical push for freedom that brought down the Iron Curtain.

Inspired by Hungarians and others in Central and Eastern Europe who were determining their own destiny, I resolved to pursue a career helping to support a free Europe allied with the United States. 

So in the spring of 1999, I was giddy.

I served as the NATO Desk Officer in Madeleine Albright’s State Department working under Ron Asmus, an architect of NATO enlargement. I helped prepare the Secretary’s papers for her visit to Independence, Missouri on March 12, 1999, when Foreign Minister János Martonyi of Hungary, Bronisław Geremek of Poland, and Jan Kavan of the Czech Republic signed the protocols of accession to NATO.

A month later, I staffed the 50th anniversary NATO Summit here in Washington where Prime Minister Orban declared in the Mellon Auditorium – where the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949 – “So for us Hungarians, by joining NATO, this century of suffering and uncertainty is finally over.”

I went on to serve as deputy chief of staff to NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson. At NATO, my secretary was an extraordinary woman who was the first Hungarian to be hired by the Alliance.

I returned to the National Security Council at the White House working for Condoleezza Rice, Steve Hadley, and Ambassador Dan Fried. We expanded visa-free travel to Hungarians and much of the region. We launched a solidarity initiative to support the militaries of those allies who fought with us. We supported Hungary’s European Union membership.

But it was 2006 that became the year of Hungary in Washington, a time when I had the opportunity to work so closely with Ambassador András Simonyi who worked tirelessly deepen the US-Hungarian relationship. Secretary Rice hosted a 50th anniversary commemoration of 1956 at the State Department; Representative Tom Lantos hosted another on Capitol Hill to which I accompanied President Bush.

In June, I had the honor of supporting President Bush when he visited Budapest to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising against Communist rule, and to showcase Hungary as an example of freedom’s power to the world. On Gellert Hill, he said, “The lesson of the Hungarian experience is clear: Liberty can be delayed but it cannot be denied.”

And in October of that year, the Bushes hosted a private screening of Children of Glory, a remarkable film that tells the story of ’56 through the infamous “blood in the water” match between the Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams at the Melbourne Olympics. This event was the most emotional event I staffed at the White House, where we were joined by ‘56ers, as well as some of you in this room – Governor Pataki, Ambassador Foley, Andrea, and Max.

I learned that for Hungarians, “1956 is not a memory or history, but our heart and our backbone,” as the poet György Faludy wrote.

For the world, 1956 showed that hope was alive behind the Iron Curtain.

As Ambassador Szemerkényi tells me, Hungary has made it clear that it is part of the West not just by culture, but by choice – in 1848, 1956, and 1990.

It is today’s often-caricatured leader of Hungary, Prime Minister Orban, who played such a prominent role in those choices, including his passionate speech in the summer of 1989 on Heroes Square at the reburial of Imre Nagy.

Transforming a student movement into a party, he formed the government in 1998. He relaunched the Visegrád Group leaving one chair empty, that of Slovakia, until it could restore its democratic path. His government signed the protocols bringing Hungary into NATO in 1999.

In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hungary and all of Central Europe forged a special relationship with the United States, as Americans assisted formerly captive nations’ transformations first into free market democracies, then into allies in NATO and members of the European Union, and later as coalition partners in battle.

Indeed, for many us – myself included – the US relationship with our newest allies became our special relationship, no offense to our British allies.

But when FIDESZ returned to power in 2010, things looked different.

Our successes in Central Europe had come to be taken for granted as –understandably – our attention shifted elsewhere. Everything became all too normal. And as a result, US engagement subsided.

Victor Orban returned as prime minister in the wake of our Russia reset and an American reversal on missile defense plans in the region that caused some in Hungary to ask whether US support was ephemeral.

Consider this:  President George W. Bush was the last American president to visit Hungary – 12 years ago.

Vladimir Putin visited Hungary twice just last year.

The last Secretary of State to visit Hungary was 7 years ago in 2011, when Secretary Clinton inaugurated the Lantos Institute. When Secretary Pompeo hosted Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó this year, it was the first such ministerial meeting in six years. I am delighted to say that Secretary of Energy Perry just recently visited Budapest. 

Without malice, we witnessed a decade in which transatlantic bonds receded, American engagement in the region ebbed, governments began to hedge their bets, and then electorates, strained by fallout from the financial crisis, began to question the promise of a Europe whole and free.

Against this backdrop, Vladimir Putin and a revanchist Kremlin dropped all pretense of pursing a strategic partnership with the West, and then acted to halt the eastward democratic advance, to undermine our post-Cold War gains, and to sow mistrust within our own societies.

And more recently, the Chinese have shown up in a major way.

The consequence of all of this is where I began – a gap of differences and misunderstanding opening between Budapest and Washington.

So how do we begin to close that gap and bolster the US-Hungarian alliance? Let me lay out some guiding principles first and then offer some ideas on what specifically we might do. 

We must recognize that the great challenge of the 21st century will be the competition between the free world and authoritarian corrupt state-led capitalism, chief among them China and Russia.

In the short-term, we see so much that divides the US from our allies – Iran, trade, climate – rhetorical flourishes from our leaders – but we need to remain focused on this great, emerging global struggle in which democratic societies like the US and Hungary find ourselves in the same camp.

What unites all of us in the transatlantic relationship is that we comprise the spine of the free world. Too often, we don’t recognize this while our adversaries certainly do.

The goal of US policy must be to keep our allies as our allies. It sounds straightforward, but in an era of geopolitical competition, America’s friends and allies are its best competitive advantage.

This means we shouldn’t attack our friends and expect them to remain our friends. Rather than driving them away, we must keep them close. And this means we must show up. Meet our allies. Consult them. Even as we challenge them to do more.

When taking the oath of office in May, Orban affirmed that, “Hungary is and will continue to be a committed member of the Western system of alliances.”

Indeed, Hungary is in a region of strategic interest to the United States and should be among our natural, closest allies. Since 1990, as the United States supported the region’s aspirations, the region stood by Washington on very tough decisions.

Located historically between the once great powers emanating from Berlin, Moscow, and Istanbul, this part of Europe finds security and strength through a strong relationship with Washington.

The United States also has strong strategic interests in a region that has been a source of geopolitical conflict repeatedly forcing Americans to come to Europe’s rescue.

At the same time, we need to understand better what’s happening in Hungary. There is a tendency in the American press to conflate political views on issues such as immigration and social conservatism with the state of Hungarian democracy. We must distinguish between rule of law or corruption and questions of social policy and border security. They are different.

We also need to better understand what is happening in Europe and what Orban’s position is. He is offering a serious intellectual challenge to the status quo within the European Union. There is a fundamental reshaping of Europe taking place, in large part as a result of electorates rebelling against national establishments and the Brussels consensus.

Orban is staking out not an anti-EU position, but an anti-Brussels position, arguing that the “EU must operate as an alliance of free nations – not a United States of Europe.” He argues for Christian democracy over liberal democracy. And he does so with sharp language.

Another key principle is that, as friends, we must be able to have frank, private conversations about real concerns. US Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell, a friend of the region and speaking at the Atlantic Council recently, used strong words: “we expect those whom America helps to not abet our rivals whether through energy deals that make the region more vulnerable to the very Russia that these states joined NATO to protect themselves against, or networks of corruption and state-owned enterprises that rig the system in favor of China and Russia.”

Finally, we must keep values at the center of our alliance. What makes the West the West after all is the idea of not just the nation, but the free nation and their free people. Democratic practices and institutions, from free media to independent judiciaries, are central to who we are and why we are allies.

I don’t believe in just analyzing issues, but in shaping a better outcome. There are several things we could do to bolster the US-Hungarian relationship. Indeed, I’ll share some ideas I previewed earlier today with Ambassador Eszter Sándorfi of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, who is with us this evening.

First, we need more permanent American engagement in the region, politically, economically, and militarily. The uptick in political-level engagement should continue. The permanent stationing of US forces in Central Europe, in Poland and Romania, for example, would help anchor our alliance with the entire region, including Hungary.

Similarly, US leadership on the Three Seas Initiative is designed to increase US economic investment in critical infrastructure projects to better integrate the region. Hungary, in turn, can welcome American engagement, while working with us to push back Russian nefarious influence and resist the siren song of easy Chinese money. 

Second, our partnership needs to get serious on energy. Hungary’s energy dependency on Russia remains perilously high. This is a national security issue for Hungary first and foremost. But we often blame Hungary for an energy security situation that has resulted from, in part, the failure of EU, US, or regional efforts. After years of stalemate, the United States needs to flex its diplomatic and economic muscles to ensure Romania and Croatia complete long-stalled efforts to bring energy supplies from the Black and Adriatic Seas to Hungary.

Third, our two nations should bolster our defense ties, most immediately through the conclusion of a critical Defense Cooperation Agreement, which would provide a framework for US forces to exercise in and transit Hungary. As Hungary moves toward its 2 percent of GDP NATO defense spending commitment, we should be helping Hungary divest of Russian military equipment and the maintenance contracts they require.

The field experience our soldiers forge together remains critical, with 700 Hungarians troops alongside US soldiers in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Fourth, our nations should undertake a common strategy to help anchor Hungary’s neighbors in the West – namely Serbia and Ukraine. Nothing would guarantee Hungary’s security and the security and prosperity of Hungarians in Vojvodina or Subcarpathia more than democratic neighbors integrated in the West and its institutions.

Fifth, Hungary is an outsized partner for the United States on homeland security, as Budapest has unprecedented data on irregular migrants that traversed its territory, and a strong record of exchanging data to enhance air travel and border security.

Tonight is a call to action. Over 100 million people in Central and Eastern Europe overcame tyranny and now live securely in freedom. We cannot squander our accomplishments.

As we look forward next year to celebrating 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell and 20 years since NATO enlargement, we must mobilize our alliance, develop and implement strategies to bolster a free Central Europe, and reinvest in the people who bring to life the special ties between our countries.

Indeed, we’re working at the Atlantic Council as part of our Central Europe Initiative to this end.

Anna Smith Lacey of the Hungarian Initiatives Foundation is helping us think through how we turn this strategy into programming that produces results.

To this end, we aim to build communities of influence invested in the US-Hungarian alliance by expanding the number of fellowships, and conducting study tours of Hungarian opinion-shapers to the United States and Americans to Hungary. This is an area where the Hungarian-American Coalition is playing an important role. Indeed, I am so pleased to have with us tonight our first two such fellows at the Atlantic Council, Anna Juhos and Fanni Virág.

We also need a strategic dialogue as a venue for sustained, frank conversations on core issues among trusted interlocutors on both sides to build confidence, understanding, and develop a common agenda. And we then need to develop that agenda to provide meaningful content and purpose to our relationship.

Finally, we all need to do our part to ensure through public engagement and media that Americans gain a deeper understanding of Hungary and Hungarians see the United States present as a force for good in their country.

As Ambassador Dan Fried says, “Scolding is a waste of time. Handwringing is lazy. The US needs to show up.” No attacking. No complaining. Rather together, we start building.

As we gather in advance of Saint Nicholas’ feast day on December 6, may your boots, sitting on your windowsills, overflow with treats from Mikulás.

Thank you.


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