The facade of the Central European University in Budapest. (Zsolt Szigetvary/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Columnist

During his first NATO summit in Brussels, President Trump refused to state his support for NATO’s most important treaty obligation. During his first British visit, the president managed to offend everybody, from tabloid journalists to the queen. But although there are many incidents and relationships to choose from, the most embarrassing European foreign policy failure of the Trump administration is not unfolding in London or Brussels, but in Budapest.

Why? Because in Budapest, the Hungarians are undermining the policies of the Trump administration by following its lead. In a recent speech, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “our mission is to reassert our sovereignty.” In addition, he said, “we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well.”

But “exerting sovereignty,” by undermining NATO and other international norms and agreements, perfectly describes what Hungary is now doing — at the expense of the United States.

For those who — understandably — don’t follow Hungarian politics, let me preface this by explaining that Hungary is a de facto one-party state, led by a prime minister, Viktor Orban, who has stayed in power by exerting total control over all broadcast and print media in the country; by manipulating and gerrymandering elections; and by creating a network of corrupt oligarchs who finance him and his party. One of the reasons Orban gets away with all of this is because he has successfully changed the subject to attract foreign support: Although Hungary has few immigrants of any kind, Orban runs a chauvinistic anti-immigration campaign, deliberately designed to appeal to the European and American far right. Stephen K. Bannon is an avid fan.

But despite Orban’s declared affinity for Trump’s versions of “sovereignty” and “nationalism” — or, perhaps more accurately, because of it — Hungary goes out of its way to undermine U.S.-led institutions. This week, the Hungarian government once again blocked the meeting of the Ukraine-NATO Commission, in defiance of U.S. requests. Hungary’s preference for its relationship with Russia, over and above its formal treaties with the United States, also manifested itself in a recent refusal to extradite two Russian arms dealers sought by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Instead of cooperating with a U.S. request, Hungary handed the two men over to Russian authorities.

These defiant gestures come directly on the heels of another one: Last month, despite its prejudice against ordinary asylum-seekers, the Hungarian government welcomed the rogue former prime minister of Macedonia to apply, in order to evade corruption charges at home. Nikola Gruevski had been convicted of abuse of power by the office of the special prosecutor in Macedonia, an institution that was set up with the help of the U.S. government; the State Department has described Gruevski’s trial as a “thorough and transparent legal process.” But the Hungarian government, unlike the U.S. government, is not interested in the rule of law, either domestically or internationally, and doesn’t pretend otherwise.

Finally, and more famously, Hungary received international attention this week for forcing the Central European University — a U.S.-registered and -accredited institution, and one of the strongest universities in the region — to leave the country. Michael Ignatieff, the university president, described the situation as “unprecedented. . . . A U.S. institution has been driven out of a country that is a NATO ally.” The decision was made after the government created legal problems for the university and ran another destructive poster campaign against the university’s original founder, financier George Soros, who does not have a role in its current management. Talk of Soros was, once again, a fig leaf, a narrative designed to appeal to Hungarian anti-Semitism and the American right.

In practice, of course, the expulsion of the university is also a direct insult to the U.S. Embassy, whose successive employees and ambassadors fought for the CEU to stay. It’s a stain on the long tradition of independent and international American academic institutions — think of the U.S. universities in Beirut and Cairo. And, of course, it’s a blow to Hungarian academic freedom. Hungarian teachers and scholars across the country, most of whom work for Hungarian state institutions, already fear they will pay a price for saying or writing something that the government doesn’t like. I am told that political scientists studying Orban’s election violations have become reluctant to present their evidence in public.

To all of this, the Trump administration has no response. Trump’s ambassador burbled something about his “friend” Orban; the State Department was reduced to condemning Hungarian behavior as “not consistent with our law enforcement partnership.” The truth is that even though this kind of “sovereignty” — tough talking that hides law-breaking — weakens the United States, it’s hard for Pompeo, Bannon or Trump to object. They’ve opened a Pandora’s box, and now it won’t close.

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