"America is back," Joe Biden proudly announced at the beginning of his presidency.
Strangely, that development seems not to have reached Europe. Out of the European Union's 27 member states, only 12 have a U.S. ambassador or an ambassador nominee. Hungary has lacked a U.S. ambassador for roughly three and a half of the years since 2013; the current barren period has now surpassed one year.
If Secretary of State Antony Blinken saw a problem with any of this, he could influence the White House to address the matter. To those who follow the State Department's publicly stated priorities, however, the neglect shouldn’t be surprising. In a LinkedIn post last month, the State Department touted "Lesbians Who Tech & Allies: Queer. Inclusive. Badass." Perhaps more notably, the State Department proclaimed, "Diplomacy embraces differences."
To an observer in a place such as Hungary, this is laughably hypocritical language. While Democrats are in power, U.S.-Hungary diplomatic relations will be limited at best. During its first year, the Biden administration has asked the Senate to consider ambassadorial nominations to Brunei, Equatorial Guinea, and Gambia, among others. Within Europe, Moldova and Kosovo have secured nominations. Those five countries, none of which is a member of the European Union or NATO, have a combined GDP of $108 billion, just over one-third that of NATO ally Hungary’s $302 billion.
Meanwhile, Budapest waits for an American representative. Although the president appoints ambassadors, the State Department plays an important role in the process. Both are at fault in the ongoing disregard of the Central European nation.
Hungary has learned diplomacy only embraces differences when they are politically expedient. Sadly, this attitude is not a new development in U.S. foreign policy. When President Donald Trump met Prime Minister Viktor Orban in 2019, it was the first meeting between the leaders of those two countries in over a decade. As a presidential candidate in 2020, Biden unceremoniously grouped Hungary among "totalitarian regimes" and "thugs of the world." If one were to undertake the fool’s errand of assuming government policies are sensible, that person might deduce Equatorial Guinea has a more commendable atmosphere of freedom and human rights than Hungary.
Seemingly ambivalent about an offensive gesture toward a NATO ally, the State Department urged Americans not to attend commemorations of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising on Oct. 23. It did not specify a reason. The State Department also omitted Hungary from its feted "Summit for Democracy," which concludes on Friday. Hungary is the only EU member state lacking an invitation.
This is ludicrous. Consider that among the invited participants were not-so-democratic stalwarts Angola, Pakistan, and Congo. This delusional diplomatic approach might be tenable if you're the only game in town, but the United States is not. Russia regularly sends a Putin-level delegation to Budapest. Xi Jinping met with Orban as recently as 2019, and his country has continuously engaged the Hungarians with high-level visits and the carrot of infrastructure investment.
Unsurprisingly, Hungary has both maintained EU sanctions against Russia and blocked EU statements criticizing Russian acts of aggression and Chinese human rights abuses in recent years. But can anyone truly blame the Hungarians for considering their options? How many times must we drive an otherwise sympathetic country into the arms of adversaries? During the Cold War, the U.S. dispatched 19 ambassadors to its adversary, the Soviet Union. No period between appointments lasted even a year. Something has happened at the State Department, and not for the better.
This warrants an ominous outlook. The State Department exists to advance American interests, and that advancement will not occur with the type of obstinacy employed here. If the U.S. and Hungary can enjoy full diplomatic relations only while Republicans hold power, U.S. foreign policy is broken.
U.S. interests demand that the State Department embrace the "differences" of a country that is free, democratic, and strategically important.
Michael O’Shea is a fellow at the Danube Institute and is part of the Budapest Fellowship Program, sponsored by the Hungary Foundation and Mathias Corvinus Collegium.