US Ambassador Colleen Bell's farewell interview

January 19, 2017

Photo: index.hu

“When we talk about civil organizations, we are talking about groups of Hungarians who love their country and joined together in order to improve the country in certain areas.  Or in order to give voice to certain matters, like the problem of corruption and the promotion of tolerance, or improving education.  They do not constitute a threat to Hungary, but are vital to a democracy  For this reason I would encourage the government to cooperate with these civil organizations in the matters they consider important.” 

The following is a translation of the interview with US Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bradley Bell published in Hungarian by daily online index.hu on January 18, 2017.

Colleen Bell, the accredited Ambassador of the United States to Budapest, is leaving after two years and the election of Donald Trump as President.  She gave a farewell interview to Index.

First she reacts to criticism surrounding her appointment.  She thinks this was not personal.

  • Bell defends the civil organizations attacked by the Hungarian government.  She believes the government is overestimating George Soros’ role and that the billionaire has no influence over American foreign policy.
  • Bell thinks Jobbik will be handled the same way as now: there will be no contact with the far-right party.
  • She says there is a decrease in the independent Hungarian media and she misses Népszabadság, but cannot state that the newspaper was closed for political purposes.
  • She says it is conceivable she will run for public office in America and play a role in the Democratic Party finding its way again.

You’ve had a pretty exciting two years in Hungary but we’re not going to start with that.  Rather, you have never officially responded to the criticism and negative media reaction surrounding your appointment and Senate confirmation hearing in the United States.   We are curious how this affected you and your family, and whether looking back there was any criticism you found warranted.

I put that so far behind me that I haven’t really thought about this, to be honest.  Look, this is politics, and politics are brutal.  It is fierce, competitive, combative – that’s just the way politics works  You can see the same thing in the Senate hearings of the pending members of the Trump administration.  However, eventually I was unanimously approved by the Senate foreign relations committee, both on the part of Democrats and Republicans.  As I see it, criticism of me was a combination of political and economic interests and sexism.  But I repeat, if you enter the political arena, you have to suck it in and be very prepared.

And you were?

I’m tough.  A lot tougher than I look.  But I understood that these criticisms were not directed at my person, but were politically motivated.  It helped that for every criticism there were a hundred compliments from those people who worked with me, and that they had complete confidence in my abilities.  And the criticism afforded me a perfect opportunity to discuss with my children how the media works and how information spreads today, and the fact that there is an awful lot of invention, false information, and that there are certain powers that try to paint people’s successes as failures, or simply understate their accomplishments.

Did you not entertain any doubts?  Obviously, you had no diplomatic experience and had not dealt previously with foreign policy.  Do you not think there was some truth in some of the reservations relating to your person?

I did not doubt for a minute that I would be an effective American ambassador in Hungary.  Not for a minute.  I am perfectly aware of my abilities, as are those people who know me or even President Obama himself who nominated me for this task.  But I also know that I had to learn a lot and had to properly prepare, and that is precisely what I did.  We should also add that it is a tradition for the US president to choose ambassadors from the private sector to all parts of the world.  There is a memorial plaque to Benjamin Franklin here at the Budapest embassy: it was through political appointment that he became ambassador to France.

Some believe Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was expressly happy that the US president continuously sends female ambassadors to Budapest, because he thought that he could charm them with his politeness, hand-kissing and all the rest.

Well, that is really sexism if someone believes that, and completely ridiculous.  You cannot easily charm me, and I know the same applies to my predecessors, who historically have been women.  Anyone who claims this about us simply does not know us!

On those occasions when you met with Orbán, did you not sense that the head of government wanted to impress you, or that he did not regard you as an equal?

Prime Minister Orbán was respectful and cordial, and willingly shared his knowledge about Hungary.  He was extremely professional and supported my efforts here.

How many times did you meet officially?

I had numerous official meetings with the prime minister.  After my arrival we met together.  Later we had a long and substantive meeting at the American-Hungarian Business Council meeting.  Our discussion at 8:45 am on the morning after Brexit was memorable when the prime minister shared his thoughts and expectations for twenty-five minutes with regard to the extraordinary change taking place in the EU.

Have you met with Orbán since the US presidential elections in November?

Not with him, but I regularly sit down with representatives of the government, after the election as well.

We would have been interested in knowing Orbán’s opinion about Donald Trump’s pending presidency.

You know just as well as I do from the news that he is extraordinarily enthusiastic and excited by the opportunities offered by the next administration.

Do you think there is basis for his optimism?  You and your predecessors expressed condemnation of the government over problems regarding freedom of speech, rule of law, and democracy.  Will the Trump administration be more lenient?

I cannot speak about the policies of the future administration of the elected president, only that, in general, foreign policy tends to be extremely values-based and consistent.

I believe the next administration will continue the same road and will continue to promote trade, security, law enforcement.  Hungary is a reliable and important ally in the fight against international crime and terrorism.

You neglected to mention those areas raised in the previous question.  Do you believe those groups – civil organizations, civil rights defenders, organizations dealing with minority rights or media freedom  – who shared the values of the outgoing Obama administration should start to worry?

Freedom of expression, media freedom, human rights – these are universal, fundamental democratic values and cornerstones of our foreign policy.  At the same time I believe we will continue to promote policies committed to their maintenance and support.

Do you really believe this?

Yes.

Several days ago the Fidesz deputy chairman, Szilárd Németh, announced that with Trump’s election arrived the international possibility of sweeping away civil organizations tied to George Soros.  I think this contradicts what you have just said.  The reason the Hungarian government is awaiting the Trump administration so is because it thinks it will allow them to do whatever it wants, including cracking down on civil organizations and independent media. 

I repeat that promoting the values mentioned is a central element of our foreign policy.  But what I can say about what I have read here in Hungary in recent weeks about the so-called threat to civil organizations, and about how they should be closed, is the following: When we talk about civil organizations, we are talking about groups of Hungarians who love their country and joined together in order to improve the country in certain areas.  Or in order to give voice to certain matters, like the problem of corruption and the promotion of tolerance, or improving education.  They do not constitute a threat to Hungary, but are vital to a democracy  For this reason I would encourage the government to cooperate with these civil organizations in the matters they consider important.

Have you spoken with Hungarian civil organizations and their leaders in recent weeks or months?

Yes, of course.

Did these Hungarian civil organizations feel threatened by their own government?  What was your impression?

As the American ambassador I met with a great many different people from every section of society, including civil organizations.  We had important and honest discussions about their priorities and affairs they deal with.  There were some who expressed their desire to be more respected.

And they said this so politely how wonderful it would be if they respected us more?  Or did they express themselves more forcefully?

I heard various opinions.  Some civil organizations feel that their work is recognized and respected.  Others not so much.

One of the main accusations on the part of Fidesz is that George Soros is supporting liberal political goals through these organizations, which in this way are quasi-foreign agents.

Civil organizations are fundamental to the operation of any democracy, as I mentioned earlier.  They need to feel that there is room for them to complete their work.  Who devotes their lives to serving a cause are driven by good intentions.  They are not foreign agents, they do not want to bring the government down, and they do not want to influence the outcome of elections.

In recent years, since my arrival, George Soros has received an important role in the news.  They accuse him of all sorts of nefarious doings.  But George Soros did many wonderful things for the Roma community, created scholarship opportunities, and did an incredible job supporting institutions like the Central-European University.  I told my various Hungarian governmental interlocutors again and again: they are overestimating George Soros’ ability to influence the policies of the United States or US elected officials. This is simply not the case. But then why do they portray him as such an important person?  Some tell me it may be because the government is using him to divert attention.  They attribute all evil which exists in Hungary to him and make an effigy, bogeyman out of George Soros.

Do you see signs of anti-semitism in attempts to create a public enemy out of Soros?

George Soros is a businessman, an entrepreneur.

And a Jew.

And a Jew.  But I have never really thought about that.  Obviously, it would be shameful on anyone’s part to condemn George Soros or his work based on this one fact.

You stated that Soros does not influence US foreign policy.  Not at all?

I can state what I sense, and I do not see Soros having any influence.  Let us not forget that I worked on the Obama campaign, and I was a member of the Democratic National Committee’s financial committee.  So I am saying this as someone who was active in business life, as well as in the campaign and the political and public sector as well, as as someone with a wide scope of information.

And what do you think when George Soros supposedly tries to interfere in Hungary’s internal politics, and when he works to create sentiment in favor of changing the government?

Are we really still talking about George Soros?!  I completely respect George Soros, so much so that I do not concern myself with what he may be working on.  As American ambassador I have rather preoccupied with matters of security, law enforcement, economics, and international diplomacy.  I read about him in the news and I see what they write about him.  But beyond this I have no opinion about what he is working on.

There is a certain Hungarian opposition party which the American embassy has never invited anywhere, and that is Jobbik.  What do you think about Gábor Vona’s attempts to repackage his party as a modern, conservative, moderate entity?  Can Jobbik expect a change in attitude in American diplomacy towards them?

We have practically no contact with Jobbik.  Historically Jobbik is fraught with discriminative, anti-semitic statements, and this is contrary to our interests which we represent here in Budapest through the American embassy.

So you do not see any change in the party’s direction, or you do not believe that this is a real change?

I have heard that they are trying to change their image.

So the embassy continues to consider them an undemocratic, obscene party?

At present there is no intention on the part of the embassy to expand our contact with them.

Is this something that may be re-evaluated in the future if Jobbik happens to better satisfy democratic values?

I don’t have a crystal ball.  All I can say is that there is no room for discriminative behavior, statements, or politics in modern society.  Regardless of party, I can only hope they move away from this and come to represent appropriate values.

Do you think Russia is interfering in the modern political life of Hungary, say through supporting Jobbik?

I do not think I possess sufficient information to comment on that.

But I suppose you are familiar with the espionage case of Jobbik politician Béla Kovács.

I read about it.

The campaign against civil organizations and George Soros directed by Russia might also be familiar.  Do you not see more similarities between the Russian regime and the Hungarian government?

I am not a Russian expert, but the events of the past few years, the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and the greater challenge posed by aggressive Russian behavior – for example the directed disinformation campaign, and lastly the interference in the American election – gives cause for concern.

Did you ever get the feeling that the Russians wanted to interfere in Hungarian politics as well?

I cannot comment on that, and I have no evidence to suggest that.

Let’s talk about the media.  Since you arrived to Hungary in the spring of 2015, from TV2 and vs.hu to Népszabaság you have seen a fair number of examples of the demise of that part of media that is still independent. 

I have absolutely seen how the media market has decreased since my arrival.  You mentioned Népszabadság, which is but one example of this.  It is important that the Hungarian people have access to a broad scope of opinions and information in order for them to be informed citizens.

At the time of closing Népszabadság, the American embassy, in fact a State Department deputy undersecretary, expressed solidarity with the editorial staff.  We have just one question about this.  The Hungarian government and Fidesz politicians claim that Népszabadság was closed for purely economic reasons.  Do you agree?

I miss Népszabadság.  It was an important source of information for me day in and day out.  I’ve heard various opinions as to the reasons behind the paper’s closure.  Some believe the causes were political, others say it was economic.

But what do you think?

I think the decrease in independent media is a general trend we need to calculate with.  It is not my task to decide whether a concrete organ was closed for political or economic reasons.  But I value people’s opinions and the fact that they concerned themselves with the reasons behind the paper’s closure, and how this could potentially impact society.

So if we understand correctly, you are not willing to state that Népszabadság was closed for political reasons?

Look, I am a businesswoman and the American ambassador.  I do not have every fact, number and data in front me in order to make such a statement.  It would be irresponsible of me.

Photo: Index.hu

In recent years certain individuals on the side of the Hungarian government have accused American foreign policy of interfering in Hungary’s internal politics, and of supporting opposition parties, movements, and even that it wanted to bring down the Orbán government.  Many named deputy secretary Victoria Nuland as the mischief-maker.

This is simply not true. Hungary is a partner and ally of the United States.  We are bound together by NATO, OSCE, and the UN, and we have a close relationship through the European Union as well.  These organizations are all based on mutual values like democracy and freedom of expression and human rights.  Naturally, friends and partners can hold each other to account within these organizations.  Naturally, they are only free to do so in the spirit of respect and partnership.  On the other hand, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge any problems that exist.  In addition to George Soros, deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland also figured more prominently in the news recently.  A number of allegations and negative statements were made about my colleagues, and there are those in the Hungarian government and media who blame her for friction in the US-Hungarian relationship.   But that is unfair.  Victoria Nuland  enthusiastically and competently applied herself to realizing President Obama’s foreign policy priorities in order that Europe might be united, free, and at peace.  Victoria Nuland honestly stated what she saw in the world and was open to honest answers and dialogue.  She is an extraordinarily talented and experienced diplomat, and it was an honor to work with her.

What are the three objectives whose achievement you are most proud of?

I am extraordinarily satisfied in terms of what I accomplished as American ambassador.  I focused on the three pillars of our cooperation – security, law enforcement, and trade and economic relations – and these worked very well.  This was a very awkward and sensitive period in this region with the migration crisis, the Ukrainian situation, with Brexit, and even with the attempted coup in Turkey.  But with regard to these three pillars, I found the Hungarian government to be a reliable partner. That was the “hard” side of my diplomatic work.   The softer side, meaning public diplomacy, was visiting all 19 counties, for example.  I spent a lot of time traveling by car in order to meet as many Hungarian people in every part of the country as possible.  On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the US National Park Service, I resolved to visit all ten national parks in Hungary.

I would like to say that I worked a double shift day, night and at weekends, and loved every minute of it, the happy and exciting, and even the awkward moments as well.

What would you have liked to continue working on if you could stay.  What are the other goals?

Actually, these objectives will continue after my departure.  For example, I started the women’s networking salon, where women working in different sectors and fields from the arts to business life to health-care could meet one another and share ideas and experiences with one another and exchange telephone numbers.  This will continue after me.  Apart from that, I was the first ambassador to take a Hungarian delegation to the Select USA Summit, which is a meeting of American investors.  Although I’m leaving my post here, on the next occasion a significantly larger Hungarian delegation will attend.  So this objective will continue without me.

The third is a personal goal I would have liked to have worked on, and that was the improvement of my knowledge of the Hungarian language.  This will continue, and there is plenty of room for improvement.  This is a wonderful language, if only it wasn’t so difficult!

Do you see areas where the situation became worse since you arrived?

I am an experienced problem solver.  If a situation is getting worse, I have a hard time turning off my brain and not trying to solve it.  I feel that in every difficult situation I did everything in the hope of a positive outcome.

You do not acknowledge failing at anything?

All right, now comes the failure!  One of my goals for myself was to learn before I left how to make pogácsa (Hungarian scones) and stuffed cabbage, which is my favorite.  I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner!  And a good gulyás (beef stew).  I only have a few days left to learn all of this, and I don’t think it will be enough.  So I will take this task along with me to New York where I arrive on Friday.

Do you have political plans for the future?  For example, would you run for political office in America?

I’ve dealt with politics all my adult life.  But as an elected official?  It is entirely conceivable.  The truth is that I thrive on fierce competition, and the political arena is full of challenges and unpredictability. I am a “political animal.”

Barack Obama wants to deal with the rebuilding of the Democratic Party in the future.  Do you see a role for yourself in this.  Are you going to help?

The Democratic Party is a solid, effective and strong political party.  Even if the election result was not favorable for it, this is an occasion to reflect and reconsider what you can do in the interest of performing better and addressing the people more effectively.  There will be a lot of discussion about this, and I suspect that I will also play a role in this.