The Hungarian Leadership Represents Normalcy in Europe

2022. július 1. 12:52
"The most striking thing to me about Prime Minister Orban’s policy is how entirely normal it is. By this I mean that a foreign policy which puts national interests first is the standard, practical sort of statecraft that used to be the predominant mode everywhere in Europe and indeed around the world, for all of history" -- NS Lyons pointed out in a conversation with Lénárd Sándor
N.S. Lyons is the penname of an essayist working in the U.S. foreign policy community in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Upheaval on Substack, where he writes on ideological and political turmoil in the West, the rise of China, and technological and civilizational change.


The war in Ukraine clearly revealed that history did not come to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union as many suggested throughout the 1990s. It became obvious that power rivalry and the sphere of influence remained a defining feature of international politics in an increasingly multipolar world. What is chain of events that led to this devastating and protracted war?

I don’t think there is any need to overcomplicate it. By this I mean that, as a realist, I would say Thucydides was fundamentally right when he said men and nations invariably fight wars for the reasons of “fear, honor, and interest.” And it seems clear to me that elements of each were likely involved in leading to this war. In contrast, any insistence that only one thing alone led to the war – whether Russia’s fear of NATO expansion; Russia’s desire for honor and respect from Ukraine and the West, or a Western demand for deference; or simple greed for conquest, and so on – seems likely to be primarily a politically interested argument. Probably the most sensible lesson to learn would be simply that, as

you allude to with the return of history, war unfortunately is and always has been a normal consequence of human nature;

and as long as human nature endures, war will always be a possibility. In contrast, the line uttered with disbelief by then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry back in 2014, that “you just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country,” has always struck me as especially illustrative of the uniquely dangerous post-Cold War progressive belief that modernity – and mankind – itself has somehow broken with humanity’s past in some fundamental and permanent sense.

The approach that the European Union as well as many European countries are taking seems to be a bit perplexed. Even though Europe is hardly capable of defending its own continent, let alone deterring others, and it does not have the necessary strength to handle this crisis, it increasingly gets entangled in efforts to do so. What is your view on this contradiction? How do you see the relation between this weakness and the growing lack of moral confidence and of self-esteem in the West?

It is curious to me that the idea of “strategic autonomy” now seems to be discussed more than ever in Europe, precisely at the same time that Europe has, out of fear and anger, abandoned any strategic autonomy in order the throw its lot in entirely with the United States. Of course, this is only the culmination of multiple decades in which Europe has allowed NATO to in practice come to mean a complete reliance on an American defense of Europe, while Europe – firmly believing history was over – ignored the need to be realistic about its own defense in an age of globalization. (And arguably this was the case not only when it came to military defense, but also defense in any broader sense as well: defense of strategic economic industries, defense of borders, defense of cultural norms and values, and so on).

Then, as soon as a military crisis arose, violating the end of history thesis, Europe’s instinctive reflex was to turn immediately to America and fully align itself with Washington. Which perhaps is reasonable in the circumstances. But it reflects that lack of self-confidence (and sense of agency – of being able to determine one’s own destiny) that you mention.

America also lacks self-confidence, but in our case this insecurity seems to manifest in a habit of acting out and overcompensating with aggressive and risky foreign policy decisions.

Whereas Europe seems to tend towards passivity and diffidence. It seem reasonable that Vladimir Putin took account of this weakness as part of his calculation of whether to risk an invasion, but miscalculated in terms of how significantly trans-Atlantic unity would be galvanized by the combination of both responses.

That being said, it certainly seems possible that the experience of

the war in Ukraine could lead to a permanent awakening in Europe as to the reality of dangers and difficulties of living in a history that is not over after all.

And that this could stimulate a genuine resolve to move towards real strategic autonomy. We will see.

How do you see the more realistic approach that the Hungarian Prime Minister represents in the course of the European debates?

The most striking thing to me about

Prime Minister Orban’s policy is how entirely normal it is.

By this I mean that a foreign policy which puts national, Hungarian in this case, interests first is the standard, practical sort of statecraft that used to be the predominant mode everywhere in Europe and indeed around the world, for all of history. Of course other leaders might disagree with the particulars of his policy, as they have their own national interests and concerns. But to somehow have come to see such an approach as itself something abnormal, or even inherently malevolent (as many now seem to), simply because if focuses on Hungary’s interests, is frankly bizarre. The fact that it has been is perhaps itself a sign of how badly Western thinking has been distorted by the end of history myth – or perhaps it is simply a disingenuous, quasi-imperial frustration with those who act independently.

The European Union apparently wants to do everything it can in order to make Russia pay a very high price for its aggression against Ukraine. But what is the price that the West will have to pay if it definitively alienates Russia?

Well, this is an interesting question, in terms of how it is phrased. Because there is a significant difference here between the two halves of the West: Europe and America.

Europe will pay a heavy price, as we are already seeing happen, because it had much more to lose in the first place.

That is, it had much more invested in trade with and overall engagement with Russia, most notably in terms of energy. But the U.S. in particular has much less to lose (aside from the pressure of inflation and potential nuclear annihilation), because we had already fundamentally alienated Russia over the last two decades, pushing it firmly into the arms of our top rival, China. And we have no significant trade or energy relations with Russia; in fact Russia is mostly just a competitor to American energy and agriculture exports. Instead, the U.S. has a chance to potentially gain quite significantly – not just in terms of the energy and defense exports that will now go to Europe, but in terms of being able to consolidate the foreign policy approach of the Trans-Atlantic countries behind Washington in a single bloc unified in its opposition to Russia and, crucially, China as well.

How do you see the significance and stakes of this devastating war in a wider perspective?

As I sought to explain in detail in a recent essay, “The World Order Reset,” I think this war has very significant global stakes, extending well beyond Europe. The very short version of that argument is that, if Washington can succeed in seeing Russia successfully weakened in Ukraine, at the same time as Europe is pushed into American arms, creating a single unified Trans-Atlantic bloc, then this leaves China in a very serious geostrategic predicament. The United States, Europe, and allied Asian state like Japan, South Korea, and Australia together comprise some 60% of global GDP, whereas China and Russia together only represent about 20%. A unified Trans-Atlantic bloc would therefore have the weight to be able to largely set the rules governing the future of the world order by threatening to exclude those who won’t play along from access to its collectively dominant economic market. Meanwhile a weakened Russia would no longer pose a serious military threat in the European theater, allowing the U.S. to focus on Asia alone. Not only would this serve to significantly contain China’s influence (limiting it to the peripheral developing world, which includes most of the world’s countries and population but not significant material power), but Trans-Atlantic dominance could allow for the creation of new institutions and rules that would serve to further cement that dominance for decades, such as a new monetary order based on the inter-operability of Trans-Atlantic central bank digital currencies. Or harmonized rules for digital commerce and information control, etc. I believe an awareness of the critical importance of Europe to deciding the broader U.S.-China strategic contest is thus, broadly, a key factor in the determination

Washington seems to have shown so far in acting to maximize Russia’s losses in Ukraine, even if that means prolonging the war.

From one perspective, this has the potential to be quite good for Europe and America alike, setting the foundation for a new era of Western power. But, on the other hand, I explain that this new order would be very difficult for smaller countries (like Hungary) that value their independence from Brussels and Washington, because the whole structure of this order would rely on internal Trans-Atlantic unity and external displays of loyalty.

It would therefore have even more incentive to demand total conformity in all respects

(as disunity would risk group fracture and therefore the collapse of the whole world order). This new order would, like the first Cold War, therefore likely be highly ideological – as we’ve already seen reflected in President Biden’s rhetoric about a global conflict between the forces of “autocracy” and “democracy” – and view conformity of values as a proxy measure for geopolitical loyalty. Hungarians do not need to be told how this will play out.

However, I also predicted that this demand for conformity would increasingly only provoke more and more backlash, both within individual countries and within the EU as a bloc, threatening to eventually shatter this new order. And I noted this dynamic would accelerate in the event of a major economic crisis, which I felt was looming. I was writing only back in April, but already that economic crisis appears to have arrived faster than anticipated.

So existing Trans-Atlantic unity may shatter even faster than I had anticipated, as well.

If that happens, the whole future of the world order may instead be determined by which of the three major centers of geopolitical power comes out of global economic crisis in the best, or least bad, shape: China, America, or Europe – or maybe it will be none of them at all, leading to a genuinely multi-polar world.

In some sense, this war is a wake-up call for Europe. What are the most important lessons to be learnt for the future of Europe in terms of energy independence or strategic autonomy?

In practice, sovereignty requires the option to actually act on free choices. For an individual, being completely addicted to a drug means that their drug dealer is now sovereign over them. The same is true of nations. Total independence from any reliance on others is of course impossible, just as it is for individuals.

But ideally a healthy balance can be struck in which the nation is not completely dependent on any one other country or bloc of countries.

It was probably a bad idea for European states to be too dependent on Russia for energy. Or on China as an export market or source of technology. But it would also follow that it would be unwise to be too reliant on America for anything either – as useful as this would be for us Americans. I imagine Emmanuel Macron and I probably agree on very little else, but the value of genuine European strategic autonomy, or the strengthening of the European nations’ ability to act firmly and decisively on their own or in concert (this doesn’t necessarily have to mean through the EU) without fear of coercion, seems like an obvious necessity if Europeans want to remain sovereign and independent through our era’s storms.

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