Hungary and the Future of Western Conservatism

At the centre of Europe lies Hungary, a country of 10 million souls with a long and proud history that can be traced back to the tenth century. Hungary is rapidly becoming the hub of intellectual conservatism in the West. This is in part due to the remarkable success of the stridently conservative Fidesz government, led by Viktor Orbán, which has been in power in Hungary since 2010.

One of Orbán’s leading advisers, and one of the most influential people in the conservative renaissance in Hungary, is Balázs Orbán (no relation; above). He is the political director for Prime Minister Orbán, a member of the Hungarian Parliament, and the chairman of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest. He also chairs the advisory board of the National University of Public Service (Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem). However, Balázs Orbán is more than a politician. He is the equivalent of a court scholar, if such a thing still exists in a modern-day parliamentary democracy. He has been a lecturer in law, has completed his Juris Doctor, and is working on his PhD at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. He has also recently published a book, The Hungarian Way of Strategy. For these reasons and more, Balázs Orbán is the ideal person to ask about Hungary’s history, the Fidesz government’s philosophy and success, and Hungary’s perspective on this fraught geopolitical moment. I spoke with Mr Orbán in his offices in Budapest, and the following is an edited version of our discussion.

This interview appears in July’s Quadrant.
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SK: Hungary is simultaneously understood in the West as a leading light of conservative political action, and a totalitarian dictatorship. Having spent several months in Hungary myself, the former is obviously the truth. But plenty of people in the West believe the latter. What do you think underlies the division of opinion about Hungary?

BO: To properly understand this, we must think about the context for the emergence of the 2010 Orbán government. In the transition period in the 1990s, when the Soviets left and communism was destroyed, everybody believed that a new era was coming. And, from the point of view of human rights and freedom and so on they were right. But there was a neo-liberal economic policy and neo-liberal approach to global governance which came with that. This approach was very unsuccessful in economic terms in Hungary. The first conservative government was elected in 1990, and after that, the post-communists came together with the liberals and won power. They governed the country for a long time. The only break was the period of the first Orbán administration from 1998 to 2002.

Even back at that time, when Prime Minister Orbán was the leader of a coalition government, the narrative and the story from the well-organised liberals and post-communists was always that the conservatives were turning the country into a totalitarian nightmare. They had the overwhelming majority in the media, they had the international connections, and they controlled the narrative. They kept pushing the message that people should keep fighting against an Orbán-led Hungary on the international stage and should not vote for an Orbán government at home. These same people managed to come back into power in 2002 and ruled until 2010, and in that time they ruined the country. It was a complete disaster.

That is why an overwhelming majority of Hungarians voted in favour of Fidesz in 2010. This new governing period coincided with a very successful economic period. It was in this context that conservative policies were introduced in Hungary. And right after 2010, when Hungary decided to finally accept a new constitution, which succeeded the modified, originally Stalinist constitution of the post-communist transition period, the immediate response by leftist liberals here in Hungary was to return to this message about an Orbán dictatorship. This was done in unity with Western liberals and was propagated through the media and international organisations. The accusations keep getting more and more ridiculous. And if you know what Hungary is like on the ground, it is more ridiculous again.

The problem is that our language is isolated, and also that Hungarian conservatives are isolated. Meanwhile, the liberals, following the globalist agenda, were united with the liberal internationalists who were convinced that they should go after the conservative Hungarians. The conservatives in other countries were undecided whether they ought to defend what is happening in Hungary, in case it really was a dictatorship. I think it took us two or three government terms to bring others around, with the changing point being the European migration crisis. The whole international conservative community realised, “Oh, these guys are doing the migration policy that should be pursued by our governments.”

When Donald Trump was elected in the United States, he was very outspoken about the liberal media. He was the first one who said that the mainstream, previously very serious, media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post had become advocates of the Left, and that these are “fake news” media, and they are spreading lies, and so on. We had been arguing this since 2010, but no one was paying attention. Once it was said by the United States President, it became more plausible. It became obvious to the English-speaking audience what is happening when the media started accusing the elected American President of being a pro-Putin fascist, a truly ridiculous accusation. Many then realised that the nature of these claims was similar with regard to claims about Hungary. That was a turning point. We started to build a coalition among Western conservatives. We are still heavily attacked by the liberals. But right now we feel that we are integrated into the Western conservative community, some of whom feel that the Hungarians are among their leaders.

SK: One of the things that struck me as I read your book, The Hungarian Way of Strategy, was the importance of history for Hungary. The deeper I dive into Hungary’s history, the more Hungary and the Hungarian mindset make sense. What are the key features of your nation’s history that help explain Hungary and its people?

BO: I wrote The Hungarian Way of Strategy because we needed a real strategy for our country, not just a short-term strategy. To do this, you have to consider history, geography and the social and cultural backgrounds of the society you’re focused on. This is not a very trendy idea. People think these issues are not important any more. It is like trying to play a chess game without understanding what the rules are, where the rules come from, why are they important, and what previous chess games were about. This seems ridiculous to me, but it is the predominant mindset.

Hungary is, in an important sense, a newly deliberated nation. If you are occupied by a foreign power there is no strategic thinking. Your most important goal in this situation is to preserve parts of your sovereignty and plan how to regain your entire sovereignty. In Hungary, since the sixteenth century, for around 400 years, we have been living under foreign occupation. For generations and generations, the mindset was focused on matters “next door”; the Soviet soldiers were here, the Habsburgs were trying to dominate us, and the Turks were invading and occupying our territory. This meant Hungarians were not thinking about the long-term perspective, the global perspective, and not considering the historical routines of Hungarian geopolitical thinking. I wrote the book because I wanted to bring back proper strategic thinking. Hungary has regained its sovereignty, and we are responsible for our decisions, and we should be able to start a discussion with that kind of mindset.

The Hungarian tribes who united to make the Kingdom of the Magyars originally came from the east, from the Asian plains. They became united in order to find a home and a land for themselves. They did not come from the same ethnic background. But they created a strong unity that was based on the fact that they all needed a homeland, and they believed that they had to be able to defend it, create a life there, and continue to live in that homeland. This is why they ended up inside the Carpathian Basin. They founded a homeland, they founded a state, they converted to Christianity, and for a thousand years they worked on the problem of how they could bring security and prosperity to those living in the Basin.

Therefore, Hungarians have Eastern origins; they are not isolated from the East. They also have Western origins; they are not isolated from the West either. Hungarians converted to Roman Catholicism, the Western form of Christianity. This did not just affect the Hungarians’ personal faith. It also affected the nation’s underlying political philosophy and played a very important role in building up our state. As a political philosophy, it is part of our everyday thinking.

This history also led to us being intermediaries. We are in the middle of a Euro-Asian continent, with a unique language and unique culture. While Hungary is in the middle of Europe, it is also like Australia—it is an island surrounded by completely different people. We have always seen our task as preserving what we have whilst offering a contribution to those around us.

That is why we identify everyone around us as a friend and potential partner. But if we discover that someone wants to control us in an unacceptable way, we immediately resist. Hungarians have a strong sense of sovereignty. We don’t want to give up anything which is ours, because we have learned that if we give up then the nation of Hungary can, from one day to another, vanish. The existential fear is that “Hungarianness” and the Hungarian way of life and thinking will disappear. If you comprehend this narrative (which is obviously an oversimplification of a more complex history) you have a sound basis for making political judgments and political decisions about Hungary. And you can quickly see why the Hungarians are very proud of their culture, history and traditions, and why they fight for their sovereignty.

At the same time, Hungarians are open to co-operation with everybody; they don’t want to choose between East and West. They want to have peaceful co-operation with everybody. If it is not about getting domination over us, we can be friends. But the moment that changes, we have to start fighting.

SK: It is said that Hungary is a nation surrounded entirely by itself. There are millions of Hungarians in surrounding countries, especially in regions bordering the current-day Hungarian state. How does this affect Hungarian foreign policy today?

BO: I think this fact opens up Hungarian thinking. In one way, the thinking is quite similar to Israeli thinking, where you have citizens living on your territory and you also have many millions of citizens and those of the same ethnicity without citizenship living outside Hungary whom you are responsible for. So it plays a very important role. We are very proud to say that only 10 million people live in Hungary today, but we are talking about 15 million Hungarians taken together. And I think the Hungarian state can be very helpful for those outside of Hungary, and they can be helpful to support Hungarians and Hungarian interests. There are millions of Hungarians outside of the nation-state of Hungary, which is a tragedy of history, but right now we see it as an advantage. Politicians cannot alter history; history happened, the Treaty of Trianon happened, and we are not able to change it and we must live with the consequences. Creating a hostile environment in the Carpathian Basin is against the interests of all the nations here; if the nations of the Carpathian Basin are divided against each other, then we will not become winners in the twenty-first century. What is the job of politics? To create win-win situations with the surrounding nations, to win together, and get stronger and stronger.

 SK: Since arriving in Hungary, I have been asking people about the success of Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz government. People’s responses are pretty consistent, regardless of political affiliation or voting preference: Fidesz has talented leadership, policy and political nous, and there is a very weak opposition. Do you agree with this? And is part of the explanation simply that Hungarians are a naturally conservative people?

BO: I wouldn’t say that Hungarians are originally conservative; I would say that Hungarians are people who care about independence and sovereignty. They want a government that focuses on the national interest. When they see a government that stands up and fights for the interests of this country in every possible way on the international stage and also provides policy measures that preserve the Hungarian culture and promote economic prosperity, then they are likely to support that government. And since the Hungarian people see that this conservative approach is working, society starts to get more and more conservative. In a sense, success makes people conservative.

 SK: What do you think it means to be politically conservative? Does it mean something different here in Hungary?

BO: I think it does; there is a difference between Anglo-Saxon conservative thinking and Central European conservative thinking. Conservatism was originally not an ideology at all. This was also the way Roger Scruton articulated the core of conservatism. Conservatism was originally a reaction against liberalism and the radical ideas that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was based on preserving everything worth preserving. But I think it was different in Hungary. In the nineteenth century, conservatives in Hungary were talking about conserving national interests, and the liberals were the ones open to global ideas and global interests. Hungarian conservatism is closer to nationalism than it is in the West because liberalism in Hungary is not only about freedom; it is also about globalism.

It is very similar to what is happening in the West now, I would say. There is a divergence emerging, and it is not the fight between tradition and freedom. It has become a fight between nationalism and globalism. In Hungary, it has always been this way, ever since the nineteenth century. This is a big difference between Anglo-Saxon and Hungarian conservatism.

And from this big philosophical difference, we find some differences in terms of policy. For example, the role of the state. Hungarians are not naturally against the state. Obviously, they hate the big, socialist, authoritarian state. But if the state is not occupied by foreigners, and foreigners are not managing the state against the interests of Hungarians, then the state is not seen as an enemy but is understood as an ally. And the state’s job should be to unite and come together with the Hungarian people, to support the people actively through policy measures. This is one reason why it comes naturally to us to have a strong family support system. And that is why it is not problematic for the Orbán government to introduce policies with some kind of social elements, like cutting public utility prices. This is actually a socialist idea. But from the Hungarian perspective, if there is a market failure, then the state should step in to protect the people. This is not part of the original, Anglo-Saxon, neo-liberal way of thinking.

SK: You argued recently on Exxpress News that a core task of politicians today is to preserve the Christian traditions that have served and benefited the nations and peoples of Christendom for centuries. You say something similar in The Hungarian Way of Strategy. Prime Minister Orbán’s political vision includes a provocative formulation that opposes liberal democracy with Christian democracy. Why is the future of Western democracy, and of vital political communities, Christian rather than liberal?

BO: What is happening in the West has been described by the Bökenförde dictum, and other thinkers like Patrick Deneen, who all argue that liberalism is contradictory and therefore cannot sustain itself. The idea of the liberal state, where the state’s only responsibility is to protect the rights of the individuals, to be as neutral as possible, and to remain minimal in its responsibilities, is a good idea. But it is obviously not working. There have been decades and decades of conflict between liberal and conservative political forces, and we have seen that if the liberals are able to take over the institutions, they will turn them against the conservatives. When this happens, the neutrality of the state equals progressive ideology and not neutrality. This is what is happening across the West.

When Prime Minister Orbán talks about illiberal democracy, post-liberal democracy, or Christian democracy (it doesn’t matter which term you use), the idea is that you have to oppose this kind of functioning of the state and go against it actively. We like to use the term “Christian democracy”, which creates a distinction between conservatives and classical liberals. Both groups oppose the progressive way of thinking. But the classical liberals are saying that we have to go back to the original idea of the neutral liberal state; yes, it went wrong, but we are able to go back and start again. This is not the case; this is not the solution. Where should we go? We should go where conservatives are not trying to hide but are trying to change the state to be supportive of conservative and Christian ideas and principles. If you take Christianity seriously as a political philosophy, it’s very obvious that it cannot be totalitarian, and therefore you cannot cancel your opposition. By contrast, being a progressive means that you must cancel the opposition because you are on the good side of history and they are on the bad and have to be destroyed. The Christian way of thinking is not like that.

There has to be some kind of balance, but the state itself should be used to defend the achievements of the West, which were based on Christianity and reproduced generation after generation, and actually made Western societies free and value-based. According to our understanding, this kind of Christian democracy can be very useful for every nation. And this is the basis on which Western countries can co-operate. In the medieval period, all the nations in the West were Christian, and the leaders were Christian. And on that basis, they could work together and have mutual trust, and could implement a political system and values system based on Christianity. And this is still what can bring us together with, for example, the French—it is Christianity. It is not language, not ethnicity, but Christianity. If we throw Christianity out, then what remains? Christian democracy fits for our country. It could be very good for other countries, too, but it is not for us to decide. We are convinced that co-operating on this basis in the international arena is much better than to co-operate on the basis of crazy progressive ideology.

SK: Moving on to geopolitics, why does Hungary’s stance on the war in Ukraine differ from virtually every other Western nation, including close allies like Poland? Why argue for peace?

BO: In the war in Ukraine, there will be no winners; only losers. The war is over one year old, hundreds of thousands of people have died, the eastern part of Ukraine is completely demolished, there are millions and millions of refugees, there is no industry in Ukraine any more, their agriculture is suffering, and Russia is also suffering. This war is devastating for everyone involved. This is why we think that the sooner there is a ceasefire, the sooner we can start the negotiations, and have a long-term security agreement, the better. This security agreement should not only be between Russia and Ukraine, but also between the United States, Europe, Ukraine and Russia. This will be better for everybody because this is how we can save lives. It contradicts common sense to keep the fight going on.

Unfortunately, many of those involved in the conflict see it differently and have a different way of thinking. At the beginning of the war, there were daily negotiations. Now there are none, and it is a horrible thing because it costs a lot of lives. I do not know who is benefiting from that. But it is certain that Europe is not gaining anything from it. This is why we keep pushing for peace instead of fuelling the conflict from the outside. We focus on sitting down and starting the negotiations. We do not assume that these will be easy, or that negotiations could be finished quickly, and we don’t think that only the Ukrainians and Russians should be involved. Western powers, and probably Eastern powers too, should be involved because it is about a long-term security agreement. But the later we start, the worse it will be for everybody.

SK: Western nations are intent, at least on the surface, on cultivating alliances with fellow liberal democracies. Hungary seems to take a different approach to foreign relations and geopolitics and pursue diplomatic and trade ties that will benefit Hungary and her people. I have in mind issues like energy security and economic development, which have led your government to cultivate strong ties with nations like China, Turkey, Azerbaijan and even, at times, Russia. What geopolitical realities underpin this approach, and why do you think it contrasts so greatly with the typical Western approach?

BO: To make a black-and-white distinction between democracies and autocracies is a very similar mistake to the one at the end of the Cold War, an error made by those who talked about the “End of History”. Further, it is hypocritical. I checked the Freedom House report, put together by George Soros’s Freedom House, and this report defines fifty countries as autocracies. The United States has military contracts with thirty-five of those countries! This framework of autocracy versus democracy is a dead-end street intellectually, but it is also hypocritical. The West, led by the Democrats in the United States, is trying to separate the world and re-create international blocs, and they are trying to put everybody into these two camps and decouple economically and politically from those whom they deem to be undemocratic.

This strategy will not be effective to preserve Western leadership. What are the factors that give a nation influence in the international arena? One is demography. Compared to the West, “the Rest” are much better off. Another is the economy. What is going on right now on this front? A new balance is emerging, and the Rest are at least as strong as the West by most economic measurements. Another is energy and resources. The Rest are much better off than the West. Finally, we have military power. This is where the West is still leading. But if you are making blocs, this means that regarding demography, economic power and energy, the Rest will have more than we have. Our only chance to be superior is in the military arena. This means that the only end-game is a world war. This is obviously ridiculous and undesirable.

Meanwhile, the whole international world order, with its multilateral form of co-operation, is supportive of the West. Everything we have, the structures, currency, energy supply chains and globalisation, is in favour of the West. In the 1990s, the idea was that we would create a world order where everyone would turn into a liberal democracy, and obviously that did not eventuate. But the idea that creating a world order where Western relative advantage can be sustainable was not a bad idea at all. This is why the Hungarian position, in connection with the West, is also that we shouldn’t sign up for the decoupling idea, but preserve the structures that give a relative advantage to the West. Clearly, this is the case in connection with Hungary. We are in the middle of Euro-Asian trade routes. In terms of energy, we need to import as much as we can. We still depend on European markets, so we need to be able to remain open to benefits from Asia. Meanwhile, we are proud members of NATO which provides us security. Meanwhile, we are proud members of the European Union, which gives us access to the European market. This is the landscape where, according to our understanding, Hungarian strategy should be focused on building connectivity and saying no to the decoupling strategy.

SK: Hungary is a member of the European Union. But the relationship between Brussels and Budapest is fraught with conflict. How would you describe Hungary’s relationship with the EU? What underlies the animus between the EU and Hungary? Is Hungary likely to exit the EU in the way the United Kingdom did?

BO: Everything depends on how you think about the foundation of the European Union. It was not created to counter the idea of the nation-state, but was created as a platform for nation-states to co-operate and bring peace and prosperity to the European continent. There are some other forces and even among the founding fathers there were some people who thought that the end-game was European unification. They want unification in economy, culture and politics, and want to see the end of European nation-states. Never in the history of this continent has that happened, and this should not be the goal of the EU. It is a suicide mission, and if it goes in that direction, then the whole of European integration, and all of the achievements from the past decades, will disappear.

The first idea worth protecting with regards to the EU is this: we should have a platform to co-operate economically and put together as many policies as we can, but without getting rid of the idea of national sovereignty. This is the EU Hungary signed up for, and until the very last moment, we will fight for that. The bad news for our political enemies is that we will not do them a favour by leaving the EU. We will stay and keep fighting back against the EU federalists. The problem that we face right now is that some EU institutions, mainly the Parliament, but also the Commission, have become over-politicised. Ideology and party politics around social issues have become a core part of the European discussion and part of the habits and movements of European institutions. This wasn’t the case before. Twenty years ago, everyone in Brussels was working towards an efficient common market. They saw social issues as national issues and thought that the EU should not be involved with those.

The increased power of the European Parliament and the lack of leadership on the Commission has changed this completely. Right now, some of the powers conferred to the EU by the Union’s Treaty are misused to push ideological agendas. Progressive liberal agendas are being pressed on the member states in this way. There are some who say this pressure is about corruption. But why is it only Hungary and Poland that are deemed corrupt? Some have been saying it is because of our foreign policy in connection to the war. But Poland and Hungary have a completely different approach in relation to Ukraine, yet they are treated similarly. What links the two countries? Hungary’s and Poland’s conservative social policies clash with Brussels’s progressive agenda. If we are not able to shut down this conflict and close this bad chapter of European integration, it will cause serious problems in the long term, not for Hungary but for Europe.

SK: To conclude, what should Western conservatives, and Westerners in general, understand about Hungary? What words would you want to leave us with?

BO: Hungary is a “safe space” for conservatives all over the world. We do not want to turn conservatism into an international ideology. We do not recommend that everyone follow Hungary’s approach, as it may not work for every country. But this is a place to think freely about what should be done and what can be changed. On the other hand, we think that we can be stronger and better if we have as many foreign thinkers and leaders here as possible. We want to turn Budapest, and Hungary, into an international hub for conservatives, where you can debate and converse, and make like-minded friends. There are many liberal places on Earth, but we want Hungary to be a gathering place for conservatives.

Simon P. Kennedy is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Danube Institute. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest in early 2023.


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