Why Hungary’s Democratic Backsliding Should Prompt NATO To Act

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Órban walks in front of U.S. soldiers after a joint military exercise near the Osku village in Hungary, October 2014.

On June 6, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Órban visited a small town on the Hungarian-Slovak border to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Trianon. The agreement, signed in the wake of World War I, dramatically shrunk Hungary’s territory from its Austro-Hungarian empire borders, resulting in Hungary ceding two-thirds of its territory and leaving sizable populations of ethnic Hungarians outside of the new boundaries. In his speech, which was imbued with nationalist resentment, Órban described every Hungarian child inside and outside of the country’s borders as a “guard post” to protect national identity. Additionally, he boasted about the speed at which Hungary has increased defense spending and built “a new army,” proclaiming, “We haven’t been this strong in a hundred years.”

Órban’s deliberately provocative and threatening speech was not a nationalist dog whistle intended only for the Hungarian public. Rather, it directly suggested that a significant amount of territory belonging to Hungary’s neighbors to the east—Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine—should be considered Hungarian.

Órban’s rhetoric—and Hungary’s rapidly backsliding democracy—should serve as a wake-up call to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Today, the alliance faces a growing and pernicious threat: the rise of illiberal nationalism within its ranks. This internal threat is one that an alliance built on cooperation of individual nation-states and premised on states working together is ill-suited to address. For instance, NATO has been encouraging member states to devote more resources to national defense. However, this begs the question of whether the alliance should encourage an autocratic Hungary to massively increase its defense spending when it could use its military capabilities to threaten its neighbors. With Turkey stoking tension with Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, leading to fears of conflict between two NATO members, the internal threat of nationalism to NATO’s cohesion is clear. It is time for the NATO alliance to get serious about the threat posed by rising nationalism and democratic backsliding among its member states.

A backsliding Hungary

Over the past decade, the Órban regime has relentlessly attacked Hungarian democracy. Today, Freedom House maintains that, given the government’s tight control over the media and independent institutions, Hungary can no longer be considered a democracy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Órban has taken on emergency powers that allow him to rule by decree, further consolidating his power over the government. This descent into authoritarianism has also gone hand in hand with the regime’s efforts to inflame Hungarian nationalism and provoke confrontation with Hungary’s neighbors.

Órban has followed a tactic employed by Russia, wherein President Vladimir Putin issued passports to Russian populations outside of their borders. In 2011, Órban similarly expanded Hungary’s citizenship laws, issuing passports to ethnic Hungarians in surrounding countries. And while Órban has made it exceedingly difficult for Hungarians who have moved abroad to vote, Hungarian minorities in surrounding countries have become a major base of support for the Órban government. For instance, in the Romanian region of Transylvania, there are 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians, making it one of the largest ethnic minority populations in Europe. This has created what Tamás Kiss, a researcher at the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities, described as a system of “ethnic parallelism – to build up and maintain a system in which Hungarians can live their life as it would be not in Romania but in Hungary.” Using local proxies in ethnic Hungarian communities in Slovenia, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania, Órban has pumped money into Hungarian-centric media and cultural programs. Akos Keller-Alant, a Hungarian journalist, describes this strategy as a way to pursue “the ‘virtual unification’ of all Hungarians,” including by making it “easier for them to gain Hungarian citizenship.”

Meanwhile, tensions with Hungary’s neighbors have grown. The Órban regime has been quick to stoke resentment over various perceived slights—both real and imagined—within Hungarian minority populations. This, in turn, has provoked a backlash among Hungary’s neighbors, exacerbating tensions and increasing anti-Hungarian sentiment. This gives the Órban regime a nationalist dial, so to speak, to aggravate territorial grievances whenever it chooses. With the upheaval and uncertainty caused by COVID-19, the ability to distract the nation from the government’s response to the pandemic would likely become increasingly politically appealing.

Hungary’s revanchist allies

While ethnic conflict is not a new feature of central European politics, several factors—including Hungary’s rapid military modernization and growing relationships with Russia and China—make Órban’s increasing nationalistic posture and rhetoric more troubling.

Órban is not just stirring the nationalist pot. Hungary’s movement away from democracy and embrace of autocratic illiberalism has helped the country foster closer relationships with Russia and China. Russian intelligence has greatly expanded its presence in the country, allegedly using Hungary as a back door to the European Union. Meanwhile, China has built up its economic and political connections to Budapest, with a major Belt and Road Initiative project linking the Hungarian capital to Belgrade. Ultimately, these sorts of actions benefit all involved parties: Hungary builds economic and political ties with Russia and China, while Russia and China get the opportunity to not only build ties with a fellow illiberal regime but also potentially undermine the cohesion of the EU and NATO.

Additionally, both Russia and China provide a revanchist model for Hungary to follow. Russia seized Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine, and continues to dispute regions of Georgia under the guise of protecting ethnic Russian populations. China, for its part, has built islands in the South China Sea, claiming a loose historical connection. What once may have been viewed as an international taboo—seizing territory—has clearly been broken. However outlandish Hungary’s territorial claims, similar actions undertaken by the Órban regime may gain backing from Moscow or Beijing or both.

Hungary rearms

Hungary has been considered a solid NATO partner since it became a member of the alliance in 1999. Today, it has troops in Kosovo and Afghanistan and contributes to the Baltic air policing mission. Meanwhile, its defense spending has remained low, amounting to just 1.22 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2019.

However, Hungarian defense spending has significantly accelerated, with a major focus on force modernization. In its 2020 national budget, Hungary is expected to increase its defense spending by 20 percent, for a total defense budget of 616 billion forints, or $2.1 billion. Hungary is on track to reach the goal of 2 percent defense spending by 2023. Much of the defense budget increase has occurred since the beginning of the Trump administration, with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó emphasizing President Donald Trump’s call for European countries to ensure their own security.

Hungary is purchasing Saab Gripen fighters to replace its aging Soviet fighters. In addition, it is modernizing its helicopter fleet, acquiring 20 light tactical H145M helicopters from Airbus, and has expanded its ground capabilities through the acquisition of American Humvees, German tanks, and modern howitzers. Hungary is also seeking to expand its ground forces and expand youth recruitment to military programs. Hungary has also prioritized what it terms its “territorial defense” capabilities, or using the military to patrol the country’s borders since the migrant crisis of 2015. The Órban regime is planning on doubling the number of soldiers at the borders in 2020, despite the fact the migrant flows through Hungary have essentially stopped.

To be clear, the military balance between Hungary and its neighbors is not favorable for Hungary. It is highly unlikely that Órban fanning the flames of nationalism will turn into a full-on inferno, with demands for territorial revisions and war. Yet the mere potential for such a dystopian future—and the possibility for outside agitators to encourage such an outcome—should lead both NATO and the EU to take action to snuff out those embers.

From a NATO alliance perspective, the presence of an illiberal member whose leader stokes ethnic and national tension with its neighbors and spends significant sums modernizing its forces should be concerning. While the notion that allies embedded in an alliance could take arms against each other may seem far-fetched, history says otherwise. In 1940, during World War II, Hungary regained the region of Transylvania from Romania. At the time, both nations were allies as part of the Axis powers. What is more, Romania contemplated going to war against its Axis “ally” following the assumed defeat of the Soviet Union. It is not out of the realm of possibility that similar intra-alliance divisions could arise today.

Rethinking the 2 percent defense spending goal

For NATO, it should be clear that the political character of each of its member states matters a great deal to the security of all members and to the effectiveness of the alliance. NATO needs to become a democratic alliance again.

To that end, the United States, the EU, and European states with significant influence on Hungary, namely Germany, could step in to exert their considerable leverage. However, short of evicting illiberal members from the alliance—which is both complicated and immensely controversial—NATO should seek to deepen integration and limit the potential for unilateral action by expanding greater cross-border regional and pan-European defense integration. By way of example, in 1952, Germany and France created the European Coal and Steel Community, merging the industries needed to wage war into a supranational structure that no single state controlled. Similarly, the challenge posed by the revival of European nationalism should lead to efforts to integrate European defense acquisitions and military forces as much as possible. This should not be considered a short-term effort but rather a long-term endeavor to blunt and diminish underlying historical antagonisms.

NATO should also undertake and encourage initiatives that integrate force and promote joint acquisitions, which is already happening on a limited level in Western Europe. For instance, Danish sailors serve on German naval vessels, and Belgium and the Netherlands have joint naval capabilities. NATO has also expanded initiatives to foster joint acquisitions, including a $20 million precision-guided munitions purchase involving 11 allied partners and the establishment of permanent joint intelligence capabilities. NATO should encourage central and Eastern European countries to undertake similar efforts and should try to create incentives for such cooperation.

Additionally, NATO should encourage more defense spending at the EU level. This entails re-imagining the 2 percent defense spending pledge as not only an investment in national military forces but also in collective European defense. While Europeans do need to invest more in defense, this no longer needs to be done just through the European nation state, especially because the EU’s involvement in defense is no longer a third rail for European integration. In a recent poll, nearly 80 percent of European publics were in favor of a common EU defense policy. Similarly, European citizens are growing more comfortable with the power of the EU to solve complex multinational issues. When COVID-19 hit Italy, for example, Italian leaders turned to the EU much in the same way that a U.S. state hit by a natural disaster would turn to the federal government for assistance.

Furthermore, current European spending is extremely inefficient, leads to immense duplication and waste, hinders interoperability of forces, and contributes to Europe punching well below its geopolitical weight. For example, Europe has 17 types of battle tank systems and an estimated 178 separate types of weapons systems. While any prospect for the creation of a so-called EU army is a long way off, the gradual development of EU capabilities or of military capabilities developed under EU auspices should be integrated into NATO’s efforts and planning. Instead of worrying about duplicating NATO efforts, the United States and NATO should seek to leverage the EU’s powers of integration. The events of the past few years have made this more important than ever.

Encouraging defense integration at the bilateral, regional, and EU levels provides a path forward to deal with increasingly nationalist NATO members. In doing so, NATO can mitigate the threat of nationalism in member states such as Hungary by entangling and integrating their militaries to such a degree that nationalist agitation remains strictly rhetorical.

The renewed interplay of nationalism and authoritarianism should raise real concerns within NATO. Preventing Europe from descending into a destructive cycle of nationalist conflict was, after all, a major driver for the formation of the NATO alliance and the impetus for the European integration project. With the threat of democratic backsliding and nationalist aggression rearing its ugly head once more, NATO must respond.

Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Siena Cicarelli is a research assistant for National Security and International Policy at the Center.