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Hungary, Ukraine, and the Promise of America
For nearly two months, I’ve been living in Budapest, Hungary and travelling around the country giving lectures. It’s been a highly productive and genuinely educational experience, until Putin starting mass murdering civilians in Hungary’s neighbor, Ukraine. The war has now dominated my conversations and indelibly colored my experience. Hungarians are not just concerned, they’re actively worried—and with good reason.
According to Hungarian security policy expert, Dr. Attila Demkó, 62,000 Ukrainian war refugees are pouring into Hungary, with up to 600,000 expected. Orban’s government is—as it should—allowing Ukrainians to enter without a visa and granting them temporary protection. There are heartbreaking images of families, children, the elderly, and the infirm sobbing, destitute and fleeing Putin’s war machine.
Hungarians from across the political spectrum are justifiably worried about the war spinning out of control. Hungary has deployed troops and moved equipment to its border for security and, ostensibly, humanitarian purposes. And as Hungary is a NATO member, an attack on one is an attack on all, so a military error could trigger a much wider conflict.
If there’s one thing I can say with unshakeable confidence, it’s that Hungarians do not forget history. It’s etched into their collective consciousness. They have very, very long and vivid memories, so of course they have not forgotten the wounds of Soviet (Russian) occupation and the revolution of 1956. The occupation is a scar that acutely informs their understanding of recent geopolitical events. And that long memory extends to their enduring friendship with the United States, which makes recent events even more heart-wrenching.
In an attempt to bring levity to a dire situation, over the last few days Hungarians have shown me this clip of Nancy Pelosi confusing Hungary for Ukraine. Belying their chuckling is disillusionment and sorrow. They like the United States, and they want to like the United States, but ultimately, they do not think the Hungarian people can lean on the United States.
When it comes to their relationship with and perception of the United States, nearly every Hungarian with whom I’ve spoken is disappointed. They’re disappointed in the promise of the United States to help keep thugs and despots like Putin from wreaking havoc and mass murdering his enemies. They’re disappointed that the United States is no longer the strongest guy in the room, with a will to keep tyrants in check. And the fact is not lost that for all our flaws, we’ve largely wanted to do the right thing and bring democracy and human rights to the world.
Until recently, the Hungarians admired the United States’ strength and resolve, but they now perceive us as weak, divided, and inwardly focused. They see the unmitigated catastrophe of our exit from Afghanistan, and they are not encouraged. And they realize a deeper truth, that many in the United States no longer trust in the promise of America and believe in our fundamental values—liberty, democracy, equality under the law. If we do not have trust in our own ideals, why should anyone else?
This is not a neocon trumpet for foreign wars and endless, ill-advised geopolitical adventures. Rather, it’s the feeling one has when an old friend, confidant, and protector has slipped, fallen, and has no will get up. It’s the feeling one would have if trapped in a dark labyrinth and the only one with a torch has no desire to light it because they’re not sure if they should get out.
When they ask me what I think, what am I to say? I tell them the only thing I can. The truth. “I am sorry.”