The rise of right-wing populism in Europe presents threats to U.S. foreign policy, including to trans-Atlantic security interests.
Since assuming power in 2010, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have systematically dismantled the pillars of liberal democracy in Hungary, steering the nation toward what Orbán himself proudly labels as an “illiberal state.” This dangerous shift poses not just a domestic crisis for Hungary but also a significant challenge to the European Union, NATO, and, crucially, U.S. national security interests, especially in the context of the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine. Indeed, Orbán’s alignment with populist-nationalist leaders such as Robert Fico in Slovakia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey forms an illiberal triad that directly challenges the trans-Atlantic security order.
While troubling, it is no surprise that Orbán has also found some affinity on this side of the Atlantic. Orbán’s populist-nationalist ideology resonates with some on the American right, who see, as noted by The Economist, “a model of what right-wing populism can achieve.” Indeed, Orbán’s anti-Ukrainian stance mirrors a growing sentiment among those who advocate for an “America First” foreign policy and question the value of U.S. leadership on the world stage. This mutual admiration was clear when Orbán attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest last May, where he publicly endorsed Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential bid.
The rise of right-wing populism in Europe presents threats to U.S. foreign policy, including to trans-Atlantic security interests. Those risks require the U.S. government to take a targeted approach to counter the rise, including by investing in local democracy, embracing EU treaty reform, and confronting undemocratic trends among NATO allies.
Background: Orbán’s illiberal turn
Orbán’s Hungary is a textbook case of democratic backsliding, characterized by state capture of public institutions; assaults on minority rights, especially migrant, Roma, and LGBTQ rights; aggressive nationalist rhetoric; and attacks on the rule of law.
In 2011, the introduction of a new constitution marked a pivotal shift in Hungary’s political trajectory, pushing it toward an electoral autocracy, by which autocratic leadership gains power in elections that are neither free nor fair. The new constitution and accompanying legislative changes initiated a strategic redrawing of electoral districts, a culling of parliamentary seats from 386 to 199, and the adoption of the so-called winner compensation mechanism, whereby a proportion of votes from the losing party in elections are tallied for the winner.
Viktor Orbán’s actions have punctuated a critical moment of challenge to democracy and the trans-Atlantic security order.
Under Orbán’s leadership, Fidesz took advantage of these changes to further consolidate its grip on power. Beginning in 2014, Orbán’s allies started to acquire the country’s major media companies. They transformed news outlets into voices for the regime—or closed them down altogether. By 2019, media control resulted in 80 percent of public affairs programming being directly or indirectly financed from sources connected to the ruling party. The government also introduced one of Europe’s strictest foreign agent laws, which requires nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign financing to identify themselves and, in some cases, prohibits non-Hungarian entities from operating in the country. These conditions forced the Central European University to all but cease operations in Budapest in late 2018.
Yet the gravest threat to Hungarian democracy has come in the form of attacks against the judiciary: Budapest established a new tier of special administrative courts, transferring oversight directly to the government; packed the Constitutional Court of Hungary with partisan judges; and extended term limits from nine to 12 years—though authorities have since suspended parts of these laws.
Orbán’s actions are antagonizing the European Union
In 2018, the European Parliament activated its Article 7 procedure—a mechanism that can, among other sanctions, withhold funding when a member state breaches the bloc’s core values—over concerns about Hungary’s adherence to the rule of law. The decision prompted the European Commission to take decisive action, recommending that 22 billion euros in scheduled EU funds be frozen. The commission also cited concern over the independence of the judiciary, specifically withholding approval for 10.4 billion euros intended for post-COVID-19 recovery efforts.
In the lead-up to a critical EU summit last December, Orbán signaled that he would draw on unanimity rules to extract concessions from Brussels. Orbán, through a widely publicized letter to European Council chief Charles Michel, threatened to block all EU aid for Ukraine and the country’s potential accession to the bloc unless EU leaders agreed to review their strategy toward Kyiv. Some in Brussels saw the high-stakes move as a roundabout way to pressure the European Union into releasing the frozen funds earmarked for Budapest.
The strategy may have worked: On December 13, 2023, the commission released 10 billion euros in cohesion funds for Hungary—although it denied the decision was linked to ongoing negotiations. In the end, European leaders agreed to begin accession talks for Ukraine, but only after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz suggested that Orbán step out for a coffee break. And despite a favorable decision for Ukraine’s accession bid, Hungary still exercised its veto power to block more than 50 billion euros in long-term development aid.
As NATO nears its 75th anniversary summit in Washington this July, unity among member states is paramount.
Hungary stands out as the only country in the 31-member bloc to oppose a proposed NATO Center for Democratic Resilience in Brussels. The proposed center, designed to assist member states in combating both foreign and domestic threats to democracy, is a crucial modernization instrument as the alliance strives to present a united front in the face of growing authoritarianism. Hungary’s opposition to the center raises serious questions about its alignment with NATO’s broader goals and principles.
As NATO nears its 75th anniversary summit in Washington this July, unity among member states is paramount. The summit, which marks a pivotal moment in NATO’s history, necessitates progress on critical issues such as building consensus on Ukraine’s NATO accession. The summit will come just months before U.S. elections, and it offers a singular opportunity not only to reaffirm America’s commitment to defending democracy both at home and abroad but also to hold NATO allies, including Hungary, accountable to the democratic ideals that are foundational to the alliance.
Invest in local strategies to defend democracy
The United States can help strengthen democracy in allied and partner countries abroad by investing in local strategies that support democratic institutions and values:
- Expand existing democracy initiatives: The United States should expand existing initiatives, such as the Media Viability Accelerator, Integrity for Development Campaign, and Financial Transparency and Integrity (FTI) Accelerator, under the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal.
- Reinforce anti-corruption efforts: The United States should reinforce its anti-corruption efforts in Hungary, as demonstrated by the recent visit of Richard Nephew, U.S. global anti-corruption coordinator, to Budapest. Beyond liaising with Hungarian authorities, the United States must continue to engage with civil society groups, legal defense entities, and journalists in the country.
Embrace EU treaty reform
Hungary’s obstructionist tactics, particularly on Ukraine, underscore the need for EU treaty reform. Following the European Parliament’s decision to activate Article 48—a resolution calling for an EU treaty convention—the United States should take the following steps to monitor the EU treaty reform process and advocate that any future changes respects its regional security equities:
- Resolve outstanding obstacles to EU enlargement: The European Union’s invitation for Ukraine’s accession was an important first step, but Kyiv’s ultimate successful integration into the bloc urgently requires reshaping EU institutions, including by revising collective decision-making procedures on common security questions toward qualified majority voting (QMV). In addition, the United States should work with EU institutions and individual member states to help resolve outstanding obstacles to enlargement, particularly regarding EU foreign and defense policy.
- Strengthen the trans-Atlantic defense relationship: The decision to sign an administrative arrangement between the European Defense Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense earlier this year is a welcome first step, facilitating deeper collaboration in supply chain issues, military mobility, the impact of climate change on defense, and the exchange of information. In lieu of Ukraine’s immediate NATO accession, the United States can play an important role in ensuring the smooth integration of Ukraine into the European Union and strengthening trans-Atlantic defense relationships.
Strengthen NATO’s efforts to confront authoritarianism
Building resilience into NATO’s core functions reaffirms its fundamental identity as an alliance of democracies. Over the years, NATO has modernized to address security threats such as terrorism, cybersecurity, and climate change, all while upholding its character as a defense organization. The following strategies should be pursued to continue this progress:
- Maintain alliance cohesion: In preparation for the Washington summit, the United States should proactively address and mitigate internal political disputes within NATO to help maintain alliance cohesion. The U.S. government should advocate for the creation of an effective internal conflict resolution mechanism within NATO—a need most recently highlighted by a linguistic minority rights dispute between Hungary and Ukraine, which resulted in Hungary blocking critical NATO-Ukraine Commission talks, underscoring the urgency for a coherence mechanism. By leading the initiative to implement a framework for resolving internal disagreements, the United States can help ensure that these conflicts do not impede NATO’s collective objectives.
- Establish a Center for Democratic Resilience: The United States should advocate for the establishment of a Center for Democratic Resilience within NATO, as proposed by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in 2019. A Center for Democratic Resilience would help modernize the alliance, with a mandate to enhance its capacity to anticipate, prepare for, and ultimately respond to external and internal threats to democracy—including in the cybersecurity and misinformation realms.
Viktor Orbán’s actions have punctuated a critical moment of challenge to democracy and the trans-Atlantic security order. The recommended strategies—investing in local democracy, embracing EU treaty reform, and establishing a NATO Center for Democratic Resilience and internal cohesion mechanism—represent concrete steps toward addressing these challenges. Ultimately, these steps can advance democratic values and help maintain the integrity of our international alliances in a rapidly changing world.