“The single biggest problem [in Hungary today] is corruption. Period….And I don’t think the United States should close a blind eye to that,” says Ambassador András Simonyi, managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The EU appears to be crumbling. European leaders are having a hard time adjusting to a new President of the United States. What all this means for the future of the transatlantic community is anyone’s guess.
András Simonyi, who before moving to Washington served as Hungary’s ambassador to both NATO and the US, agrees that “things don’t look good,” but believes that “the West will figure it out.” While Europe is undergoing changes, it certainly isn’t going away, he says.
“Those who think [the EU] is going to fall apart are wrong. It may end up not looking like the Europe we know now. It might not be comprised of the same Member States of the European Union. Some countries might be left out — not just leave voluntarily, but left out altogether,” Simonyi says. “But core Europe, I think, will do fine because it is driven by extremely strong national interests.”
As for President Donald Trump and the United States, Simonyi is convinced that history shows that America, too, will “figure it out.”
“We’ll see what happens. Right now, just hold your nose and close your eyes. It’s a very bumpy ride, it’s not beautiful. But I come down on the side of those who have a great belief in America, the American political system and the American system of checks and balances. History shows that whatever the situation with the President, sooner or later America will figure it out. What I’m saying is that those banking on Europe falling apart and that, under President Trump, America will fall apart as though it was the fall of the Roman Empire, I think they are all dead wrong.”
According to Simonyi, those who are truly concerned about the demise of the transatlantic community “really don’t understand Europe or America.”
Regarding President Trump’s criticism of NATO and characterization of the alliance as “obsolete,” Simonyi thinks people misinterpreted the statement. NATO does need to be modernized and the United States needs to show strong leadership in doing so, but regardless of these challenges, NATO is still the institution of choice for the transatlantic relationship, he says.
Commenting on Trump’s insistence that NATO allies contribute 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending, Simonyi says this position is not at all unique.
“It’s not just the Trump administration. Everybody I talk to, including people in and outside of Congress, the think-tanks, they all say that Europe has to understand that this 2 percent is perhaps symbolic, but it’s also very important. It’s not enough to demand leadership from the United States, Europe has to show that it is invested in the future of NATO. And one of the things that can prove this is spending enough on defense. Some countries spend 0.9 percent, 1.4 percent, 1.6 percent, but very few countries – perhaps only 4 or 5 countries – actually spend more than 2 percent, and at least two of these countries spend it for the wrong reasons. I think this has to be taken very seriously. The Europeans need to realize that this President means it.”
NATO allies Denmark and Norway do not contribute 2 percent toward defense spending, but the contributions they do make are spent very well, in the interest of the alliance, and they make enormous contributions toward coalition efforts, Simonyi says. In relation to these two countries, he says their contributions to NATO go well beyond manpower and bureaucracy; they also make significant contributions in the field of equipment and modernization.
“I must point out that Hungary is among those countries which is not meeting its responsibilities. It’s good that Hungary makes contributions to coalition efforts. I applaud that and have always been supportive of that. I think Hungary’s soldiers are doing a great job. But spending 0.9 percent on defense is just not serious. Hungary will be among those who will be asked to spend more. It’s bad news because the Hungarian economy is not in great shape, and I don’t think they’ll be able to talk themselves out of it,” Simonyi says.
On US-Russia relations under President Trump
“It’s too early to tell what US-Russia relations will look like six months from now. I know the Russians are terrified of Trump. Trump is no Obama. A red line will be a red line, and I think Trump will be very clear of the red lines that Putin should not cross. I think the Russians know that,” Simonyi says.
It is not uncommon in the United States for an incoming administration to hope to change the quality of certain relationships.
“Good luck, give it a try,” Simonyi says. “But my advice to Putin is to not try and double-cross Donald Trump because he will turn around and there will be big trouble.”
On the Orbán-Putin pow-wow last week
“In my book, Hungary is not in the league of Russia or the United States. What is an opportunity or possibility for the United States is not an opportunity or possibility for Hungary. I am not pleased with this visit. I would have advised Viktor Orbán to wait a little until we know how the relationship between Russia and the United States develops. At the end of the day, I can say that Hungary cannot have it both ways. Hungary should be a Western nation, it should take sides with the West. That is in Hungary’s interests. It should not fool around by being way ahead of others in terms of upsetting what is now the status quo. I’m not a status quo guy, I think things should change….but in this case I would have advised caution [regarding Orbán’s meeting with Putin].”
Europe needs to stop whining
As for Europeans’ criticisms of President Trump, Simonyi says there is no alternative to working with the United States, “period,” and that the whining in Europe needs to stop.
“It’s not President Trump. It’s the institution of the President of the United States. That’s something that Europeans do not really understand. This President is totally new, and I think the best thing to do would be wait and see what happens. Secondly, when some of the things this President does seem to come from insecurity, European leaders mustn’t make him feel more insecure about Europe.”
Simonyi says the messages coming to Washington from Europe are more revealing of Europe than they are of Donald Trump.
“One should be very careful not to jump to conclusions. But I also don’t think we have an alternative and I don’t see Europeans as understanding that they will have to find a way to work with this administration, whether they like it or not. Europeans are wrong in not trying to give this administration a chance. That’s very dangerous.
“Some of the criticism is justified,” he continues. “The press is free, they can do whatever they want. But when I see leading politicians in Europe just mimicking the press, and not seeing that their narrative and statements should be different, that’s a problem.”
Advice to the Trump administration on Europe
“Whether you like Trump or hate him, it doesn’t matter, it’s in the interest of everyone that he succeed,” Simonyi says, pointing out that the same is true for Europe and Europeans.
“America does not have a better friend than Europe. Don’t think that you can find better friends than the Europeans. The European Union, with all its problems and issues, is America’s most important partner. There are a lot of crazy ideas coming out of the new administration concerning Europe, but they should also not forget that Europe is America’s single best friend. America needs to find a way to work out the differences and problems and get on with the job of improving the transatlantic relationship, in security, in defense, and in economic cooperation.”
Simonyi says he would love to see US-Hungary relations improve, but Hungarian politicians have a nasty habit of overestimating their own importance and influence.
“I can see traces of Orbán falling into that trap. It’s a very dangerous trap to fall into. You can become delusional, you can start living in a bubble. But that’s not atypical for Hungarian politicians and Orbán wouldn’t be the first one to do that. I must admit that the Gyurcsány government had an incredible opportunity to cement the relationship with the United States and it basically chose not to. So, my criticism is not just of Orbán.
“At the end of the day, I say it’s a good thing for the United States and Hungary to sort out their differences and build a stronger relationship. That does not mean, however, that the United States should close a blind eye to things that are happening in Hungary and which do not serve the interests of the Hungarian people.
“The single biggest problem [in Hungary today] is corruption. Period….And I don’t think the United States should close a blind eye to that.”