Transcript of ATV’s Olga Kálmán interview with acting US embassy spokesperson M. André Goodfriend on recent comments by former US President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama critical of the Hungarian government.
Olga Kálmán (OK): Within a short period of time two American presidents, one former and one current, have condemned the Hungarian government. Bill Clinton for the most part condemned the prime minister when stating in a manner that could not be misunderstood that he was only interested in power and money. Obama condemned the Hungarian government for attacks on civil society. The Hungarian government’s official response arrived soon thereafter: the former and current presidents are probably not informed, or even misinformed. Hungary’s new Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjártó, said Bill Clinton has not been to Hungary in a long time. Fidesz party deputy chairman Lajos Kósa said the president had been misled. Our guest tonight is acting spokesman for the US embassy Mr. André Goodfriend, which makes him the senior official at the US embassy.
M. André Goodfriend (MAG): Good evening.
OK: Were you the one who misled the former and current presidents?
MAG: We like to think that we’re providing the best information possible to our government with regard to the situation. So it was us who provided, as well as others, the information to the administration.
OK: How accurate and up to date is the American President’s knowledge about a given country?
MAG: The purpose of a diplomatic mission is to understand the situation of the country where we are as well as to convey the US perspective in that country. The information we were providing back to our government we believe is accurate, it’s up to date, it’s as current as the conversation you and I are having now. And the situation I’ve seen in this studio and in the street is the situation that is in Hungary today. It’s accurate. We speak with people on the street. We speak with government members. We speak with members of civil society. We speak with different political parties whether on the right or on the left. We try to understand the full situation here. Not just based upon, pardon me, media reports, but based upon our expert observations of being here, of as I said seeing things with our own eyes and providing our own professional analysis back to our government.
OK: Where is the report prepared on the basis of what you experience sent and how does it get to the President for him to include in a speech?
MAG: There are many ways that we communicate now. In fact, part of the challenge of modern diplomacy as opposed to diplomacy of 50 years ago is working in an environment where there are so many ways to communicate that is not just sitting with a member of the government in a closed room and discussing what our policies might be and expecting that the policies will be that we’ll have a conversation, that we agree, and everything changes because the government has agreed to implement the policy, and we report that back by letter to our government. Now the situation with email, with the internet, with social media, with so many different organizations here, when we talk with people we may communicate back by email, we’ll talk in a café, will talk in open fora. I like to talk to groups. I’ve spoken to schools. I’ve spoken with conservative salons, with salons on the left. I hear perspectives from political leaders. And I — not just me of course but our entire embassy — we try to synthesize our experience, we have to talk with each other as well. The embassy is composed of a political section, an economics section, a management section, a consular section, public affairs, commercial affairs, law enforcement. We work closely with the government. We work closely internally. We try to provide the best assessment possible back to our government. And we’re also very public about it. Perhaps that’s changed as well. We put out statements from the embassy. I have a blog. I post things on the blog. I write the blog myself. I use Twitter. Our official statements, reports and analyses come out every year on a range of topics with regards to human rights, with regards to religious freedom, trafficking in persons, a full range of our assessments. They cannot be kept private. They have to be made public so that the citizens where we are can see what we think, what our facts are.
OK: What was the concrete situation, concrete event that caused Bill Clinton to mention but mainly Obama to mention Hungary among those countries whose current environment is not grounds for pride . Why now?
MAG: With regard to former President Bill Clinton, I can’t speak for him. He’s no longer a member of the US administration. With regard to President Obama, the discussion is about civil society. This is an important time with regard to civil society. This is the one-year anniversary of the “Stand with Civil Society Initiative” President Obama launched last September. And for some months this has been the focus of discussions at the United Nations. With regards to why these things were mentioned now, if you look at the speech at the Clinton Global Initiative it was about civil society and the importance of standing with civil society for governments to support this very important aspect of democracy. His speech at the Clinton Global Initiative was on the 23rd. Just yesterday at the United Nations General Assembly he spoke again, and civil society was also a part of his speech yesterday. The importance of civil society as a security matter.
OK: Okay. But how did we come to be associated with Venezuela, China and Russia?
MAG: If you look at the situation with regards to civil society here and the situation with regard to civil society in the other countries that were mentioned, I think the relationship is clear. Our position, our concerns with regards to what is happening with civil society here have been expressed at the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) as well. In June of this year we made a statement. It’s not just our representative to the OSCE who makes a statement. He speaks on behalf of the US government in this forum where we discuss our common values as members of this organization. In June he made a statement with regards to the intimidation of civil society and media in Hungary and laid out the reasons for our concerns. with regards to intimidation. The intimidation aspect was not something that the United States dreamed up.
OK: You’re saying that is the concern of the White House.
MAG: These are the concerns of the US government with regards to civil society. Again, it’s a positive concern. It’s a concern to support civil society wherever it is. This is the name of this initiative. Stand with civil society. We see civil society as something that is important in any democracy. It’s important for security. It’s important for the stability of society that the voices of people be heard by their government.
OK: What do you think, what do you see, and what did you write in the report, the reason why in Hungary civil society and certain civil organizations within it are being criticized and attacked by the government?
MAG: The “why” question has to be asked to the Hungarian government. I’m not a mind reader. That’s the question that we asked. Why is this happening? What we do see is that it is happening. And what we document are the facts of what is happening with regards to the audit that began in June. That’s a fact. No one disputes this. Audits began that the civil society organizations here felt intimidated—this is again what they said—that they felt that the space for them to engage in their important work was being narrowed by the actions of the government here. So our statement was about the fact of intimidation—this is what they felt by these audits. There is a discussion between the government of Hungary and the government of Norway with regards to what has happened and why it’s happening. The government of Norway has made their assessment clear. The government of Hungary has tried to explain its perspective with regards to what it is doing in a very legal sense of where the monies go and who they belong to, etc. But our focus has been on what the impact is on civil society itself; these important institutions, these important vehicles that hold governments accountable. We in the United States value the criticism that we get from civil society. We look at them as a way to keep us accountable to our people. And we hope that other democracies see things the same way.
OK: What can be the consequence of the United States warning Hungary not to intimidate civil society or cut off its funds? What can be the concrete consequences of the warning issued by the two presidents? Can the relationship between Hungary and the United States change? Might there be some kind of sanctions?
MAG: The discussion with regards to civil society and our relationship with Hungary is as an ally, as a friend. We do believe that we hold common values. Our membership in the OSCE indicates that we accept these values of human rights, the right to assembly, the importance of free speech, all of these are values that we say we respect. What we are doing now is highlighting how this appears to us, and expressing to an ally, a friend, what this looks like to us, what this looks like to the world. Just as if you are going with your friend and are about to step out and you ask, “how do I look? Be honest with me. Do I look all right? I don’t want to have something on my face. I want to make sure that I’m dressed right”. You expect your friend to tell you honestly. It’s the person who is not your friend, who smiles behind your back, and doesn’t say “you need to button up, you need to … ” (gesturing). And we expect others will tell us this. As President Obama said yesterday in the General Assembly we recognize, too, that there are things that happen in the United States that cause international concern. He mentioned Ferguson, Missouri. We know that there are things that we need to work out. And we expect others to tell us about this. And this is what we are doing with friends now. We are having a conversation publicly with a friend.
OK: If a friend doesn’t accept the good advice, then what is the next step?
MAG: Referring to my earlier analogy, if a friend doesn’t listen to the other friend about how they look when they step out in public, the consequences for the person who chooses to step out in public in that way – the perception of Hungary, how other countries perceive the situation in Hungary is damaged because of what is happening here. And we’re trying to convey through these discussions that this is what this looks like. Within the OSCE we’re similarly expressing the concern that this is what this looks like to your friends. When I meet with members of government I also say this is how we perceive this. These are the facts that we have seen. This is how this looks. It’s up to you to explain how this might be acceptable within a democratic society. But you have to understand that this is how this looks. With regards to what will happen next, again what our focus is, it’s not on trying to penalize an ally but on trying to strengthen civil society wherever it might be. The points that President Obama made at the United Nations or in his speech to the Clinton Global Initiatives were about the things the United States is doing. We’re trying to support and strengthen civil society around the world. And that is what we will continue to do. To try to work harder with civil society organizations so that they can stand more effectively on their feet and represent their own societies more effectively.
OK: Certainly you have heard that Norway is also our friend. At first Norway said that our collar was crooked, the broach (gesturing), and our rouge is in the wrong place. And then things reached the level when our friend’s Minister for Europe called for sanctions if the government doesn’t see things better. Is the Obama administration contemplating calling for any sanctions of any kind against Hungary?
MAG: Our goal is never sanctions. Our goal is to strengthen civil society. Our goal is to have democratic institutions be accepted as the normal way of governance around the world. This is the way that we try to work.
OK: And if they don’t accept our advice?
MAG: Well then in a democratic society this is a matter for the people here to decide. We don’t imagine that we are just speaking to a government. We’re speaking in a public forum. That this is how this looks. This is a democracy. People here can decide whether to shape their government with the vision they have for their future. I have spoken to many people now in the past month or so about what the Hungarian vision is for its future. How can we work together with our democratic partner to try and achieve this common vision. Frankly, I don’t have an answer yet for that. About what Hungary’s vision for its future is. Because we would like to help.
OK: Was Obama’s criticism directed at the Hungarian government or the Hungarian people?
MAG: Again, I’m avoiding using the word “criticism”. We are having a discussion. . . .If my shirt is unbuttoned it is not criticism. It’s discussing what the situation is. We’re working as friends to have that situation be one that is better for both. It’s a discussion where we are seeing things that we both hope we agree can be improved. And we ask our friends to tell us about the situation with us in the United States and share this information.
OK: Well, now we’ve told each other. Thank you.
MAG: Thank you. It was my pleasure.