The following section summarizes the results of our case study analysis in each of the three areas of foreign policy revisionism identified above. We first document the radical changes in Hungarian foreign policy, describing the institutional fingerprints of these foreign policy practices in the foreign policy apparatus. We then show how Orban and his allies used populist argumentation to justify these reforms to domestic and foreign publics and overcome salient counter-arguments.
Politicization and personalization of foreign policy apparatus
The first hallmark of populist foreign policy is the personalization and politicization of diplomacy. After Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010, he wasted no time planting party loyalists to positions previously occupied by nonpartisan bureaucrats (Müller 2016: p. 44). He pushed through the modification of the Hungarian civil service law in his first month in office, making it possible to lay off civil servants without justification. Orbán initially staffed the MFA with seasoned diplomats, reappointing János Martonyi as foreign minister. Martonyi, a polyglot international lawyer known for his technocratic expertise and strong Atlanticist commitment, had been foreign minister during in the previous Fidesz government. Under Martonyi’s leadership, the MFA invoked shared democratic values to justify its pro-Western stance (MFA 2011).
Following his second supermajority win in 2014, Orbán executed a deep structural transformation of the foreign policy apparatus. He first replaced Martonyi with Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics and then named the young and agile politician, Peter Szijjártó, the new foreign minister. Szijjártó had been Orbán’s personal spokesperson, and at the PMO he had built up an independent international economic and trade affairs portfolio outside the reach of the MFA. Following Martonyi’s dismissal, Szijjártó transferred his entire trade portfolio to the MFA, and within a few months was made minister. Once installed, Szijjártó rapidly restructured the ministry’s foreign policy-making institutions. Orbán characterized these changes as ‘a very serious break with the traditions of Hungarian foreign policy thinking and foreign policy management.’ He later recount that he had used veteran diplomats to defend internationally contested government policies in the early years, ‘leaving the structural transformation of the foreign affairs to the very end.’ (Orbán 2016).
At the same time, Orbán strengthened the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) by assuming important foreign policy competences. The expansion of the PMO is not unique to Hungary; the ‘presidentialization’ of governance structures has occurred in a number of European democracies (Körösényi 2006; Tóth 2017). However, in Hungary it has been extremely far-reaching. The PMO was founded in 2011 as a simple organization that supported the PM’s day-to-day work, including only 27 entities on its organigram. By 2019, that number had expanded to over 200 units—in addition to personal projects like stadium construction, the renovation of the Buda Castle, Hungarian film industry and ‘patriotic and military education,’ key foreign affairs portfolios were also moved there, including EU affairs. This has been described by analysts as a move toward a ‘chancellor-type’ governance, in which the Prime Minister’s Office serves as a ‘flagship institution’ (Sárközy 2012; Stumpf 2016). Even after Mr Szijjártó was appointed as minister of foreign affairs, many foreign policy areas remained at the PMO under Orbán’s close supervision.Footnote 2
The sheer number of changes introduced to the structures and competencies of the MFA and the PMO in the years following the paradigm shift dwarfs any other period of institutional change in Hungary since the end of the Cold War. Over nine years, we identified 35 different versions of the OOR for the PMO and 21 different versions for the MFA. The PMO experienced even higher institutional volatility in the following three years. Figure 2 shows how institutional changes were rather unevenly distributed, and how they peaked during Orbán second term of office, in 2014–2017.
There were also massive personnel changes within the Hungarian diplomatic service. Media reports in the summer of 2014 called the handover an ‘invasion, system change, or clear-cutting,’ reporting more than 200 new ID cards issued for new staff at the Foreign Ministry, which had roughly 600 employees overall—a huge rotation (Népszabadság 2014). Other newspapers reported that on the day before Szijjártó took office, the entire ministerial cabinet and communications team was fired in a single stroke (HVG 2014a). After Szijjártó’s arrival, all state secretaries were replaced; shortly thereafter, the ministry announced that 107 people would be fired from the ministry by the end of the month (HVG 2014b). In Szijjártó’s first month in office, 34 ambassadors were removed, with many more to follow (Dezső 2014). According to media reports, employees felt that the new leadership did not trust the staff who worked previously under Martonyi’s leadership; new hires were told not to mingle or talk to old employees.
Arguments supporting the politicization of the foreign policy apparatus
Arguments for these changes can be found in two bodies of texts: (1) the works of key ideologists who wrote about the foreign policy apparatus, and (2), speeches by Orbán himself at the annual conferences of Hungarian ambassadors. The populist argumentation typical of Orbán in the early 2010s was strongly conditioned by the 2008–10 global financial crisis, which left the country at the mercy of IMF conditionality. Departing from the datum of looming sovereign default, he claimed that Hungary needed to ‘launch a new foreign policy doctrine and way of thinking,’ an ‘independent foreign policy’ that is ‘measured by the prosperity of the Hungarian people’ (Orbán 2015). He used a sovereignty warrant to connect the datum to the claim: ‘serious money owners and investors’ (elites) threatened Hungarian sovereignty (the people) because they were ‘interested in keeping countries permanently on the edge of bankruptcy’ (Orbán 2011). Contradicting Martonyi’s accommodationist approach, Orbán argued that Hungary could either be ‘sovereign’ and successful or accept ‘subordination’ and ‘vassalhood.’ In the ontological struggle for sovereignty, there was no place for ‘experts’ like the diplomatic old guard—it required politically loyal lieutenants committed to serving the people and their leader.
Key ideologists prepared the ground for a politicized foreign policy by promulgating the principle of ‘political governance.’ In a 2008 paper, István Stumpf and Gábor G. Fodor, leading political analysts of the pro-Fidesz think-tank Századvég FoundationFootnote 3 argued that the state had to be rescued from the neoliberal discourse of ‘political hedonists’; ‘bureaucracy had to be put to the service of political power’ (G. Fodor and Stumpf 2008, quoted in Mándi 2015, 28). Handling problems of a political nature is a task for politicians—political crises cannot be resolved by intellectuals, economists or other experts (Mándi 2015, 28). Political governance implies that diplomacy (and bureaucracy in general) must be under direct control of the political leader who represents the people’s will; there was no place in the diplomatic apparatus for technocrats who act upon abstract values unconnected to the will of the people.
Orbán extended his argument for a political foreign policy in his ambassadorial speeches, complaining about the ‘technocratic illusion’ of previous leaders who believed ‘it was better to place technocratic experts at the helm of the countries rather than elected political leaders.’ Because unelected technocrats had no legitimacy, their decisions would not be accepted by the people, creating a legitimacy crisis (Orbán 2012). Orbán repeatedly stressed the importance of political loyalty in his speeches to Hungarian ambassadors, telling them that ‘good results can only be achieved with disciplined soldiers.’ (Orbán 2012) Hungarian diplomats ‘cannot be world citizens’; they must see the world from the Hungarian perspective, otherwise they are not qualified to represent Hungarian national interests. (Orbán 2015).
Orbán’s populist argument for the politicization of foreign policy-making can be graphed as follows:
Datum: Financial speculators have imperiled the Hungarian economy.
Populist Warrant: Financial dependence on outside actors threatens the interests of the people.
Claim: Hungary can overcome the crisis by replacing career diplomats with political appointees who prioritize the interests of the people.
Counter-arguments to the politicization of the MFA came mostly from former diplomats and analysts who argued that it is actually technocratic expertise that enables diplomats to serve the people’s interests. One fired ambassador reportedly described the mass discharge of senior staff as ‘the massacring of elite teams,’ by which the MFA lost thousands of contacts with foreign diplomats, harming the reputation of the country abroad (Dezső 2014). Another fired ambassador recounted that the ministry had been restructured with ‘uneducated, arrogant zest’ that dismissed diplomatic expertise (Ruzsbaczky 2015). Szijjártó easily rebutted these counter-arguments by reducing Orbán’s critics to subjects in his sovereignty warrant. The critics were recast as ‘Brussels elites’—products of ‘deep-rooted structures,’ who must be rooted out ‘in the interests of Hungary.’ Thus diminished, their concerns were easily brushed aside in the interests of elevating Hungary ‘in the new world order’ (Mandiner 2014).
Confrontation with traditional allies
The second hallmark of populist foreign policy is a style of confrontational diplomacy toward the perceived power-holders in the system in order to free the country from alliance commitments that are seen as holding the country back. While the previous Socialist governments pursued consensus-seeking strategies toward the EU based on the assumption of shared interests, from the early 2010s, the Orbán regime consciously chose to enter high-level diplomatic conflicts with its Western allies. Orbán proudly ‘sent home’ the IMF after it had helped to bail out the country during the economic crisis, initiated a conflict with the UN over its migration package, and began to use its veto powers in the EU and in NATO. After Russia annexed Crimea, Hungary used its veto powers in NATO to block high-level NATO-Ukraine meetings and joint military exercises (Panyi 2020). Budapest also began to veto joint EU resolutions or decisions seen as harmful to its new eastern allies—China, Russia and Turkey (Magyari 2018; Panyi 2019; Becker 2019). Together with Poland, Hungary threatened to veto the entire seven-year budget of the EU to block an unwanted rule of law mechanism. Finally, it has vetoed a number of joint EU declarations and international agreements deemed too ‘pro-migrant.’ In sum, Orbán went from a position of solid trans-Atlanticism and EU integration to a vocal stance of suspicion and hostility toward multilateral organizations like the EU and the UN, selectively activating Hungary’s veto rights to back up his confrontational foreign policy practices.
Orbán’s confrontation with Hungary’s allies is limited by the fact that it is a small, landlocked European country with no real economic or military power. Furthermore, the country is a net beneficiary of both EU development funds and the security offered by NATO, so leaving either of these organizations would cost Orbán dearly. Conflictual behavior in this case should therefore be understood as an attempt to use and increase Orbán’s room for political maneuver, not as the indication of his intention to break away. In this, he has relied heavily on legalese and technical arguments in his self-described ‘pávatánc’ (‘peacock dance’) that he performs for international audiences. The organizational frameworks of NATO and the EU offer their member states the legal instruments for confrontation that are otherwise unavailable to small states on the international stage. It is only through these organizations that Orbán can, for example, obstruct German aspirations in the EU or US aspirations in NATO.
Hungary’s newly confrontational stance has left institutional fingerprints. The Prime Minister’s Office has devoted significant resources to international communication to fight the government’s discursive battles in the international arena. In a bid to communicate his arguments to foreign audiences, Orbán established a new Cabinet Office for the Prime Minister, which gained the status of a ministry—supplying Orbán with an additional press office, communication department, information office, foreign affairs department and program-organizing department. The Cabinet Office expanded further in 2018 with an International Communications Office and an international spokesperson at the rank of state secretary tasked with managing the regime’s image abroad.
As if in tandem, reforms undertaken at the MFA indicated a diminished interest in multilateralism. The departments dealing with the UN and OSCE were first lumped together under ‘global affairs’ (2010–2013), then ‘security policies’ (2014), and still later ‘international cooperation’ (2014–2017). When the government began to challenge the UN’s planned migration pact (Euronews 2018), the departments responsible for the UN and other international organizations were removed from aid and humanitarian affairs altogether and placed under a rebranded deputy state secretary for ‘Handling the Challenges of Migration.’ this move suggests that the Hungarian government now sought to engage the UN and other IOs principally under the banner of anti-immigration policies, invoking an ethnopopulist sovereign warrant calling for protection of ‘the people’ as an ethnocultural unit or ‘nation.’
Arguments supporting confrontation with traditional allies
The political arguments for confrontational diplomacy can be found in Orbán’s ambassadorial speeches, in which he encouraged Hungarian diplomats to resist EU pressures that conflict with sovereign interests. In his speeches, Orbán repeatedly enjoined diplomats to take a tougher line toward the EU. The diplomatic corps was to resist all attempts by the EU to regulate national competencies, which Orbán characterized as an attack on national sovereignty. In the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, he insisted that ambassadors marshal a fierce resistance against the imposition of refugee quotas. He disparaged the ‘certain culture in Hungarian diplomacy’ that avoids conflict, proclaiming that ‘Hungary stands firmly for its national interests, and this comes with conflict.’ (Orbán 2013).
Orbán communicated this argument to the Hungarian public through a series of ‘national consultations’ that solicited public opinion on the government’s marquee positions. The 2015 National Consultation on immigration began with the datum of Brussel’s incompetence, stating that ‘as Brussels failed in handling immigration, Hungary has to walk its own way.’ (Hungarian Government 2015) In 2017, a National Consultation labeled ‘Stop Soros’ swapped George Soros in for Brussels, drawing on antisemitic tropes of powerful Jews conspiring to destroy nations: ‘In line with George Soros’ proposal, an EU-level Asylum and Migration Agency will be established that will further weaken national competencies in the area of immigration. If immigration quotas come into force, Hungarians will no longer have a say in who they want to live with.’ (Hungarian Government 2017). The 2020 National Consultation on the Coronavirus also contained a claim that Brussels continued to ‘plan its attack’ on the Hungarian Constitution and that the government should fight de-racination of the country ‘even at the price of open conflict with Brussels.’ (Hungarian Government 2020).
Graphing this argument, we plainly see the following structure. The claim for confronting the EU based on the datum that ‘Brussels’ is usurped the powers that rightfully belong to the national sovereign through ‘sneaky federative policies,’ which attempted to build a ‘bureaucratic empire’ (Orbán 2013). The datum built to the conclusion that Hungary should implement its own unique solutions instead of the proposed common policy. The two were connected, in this particular case, by an ethnopopulist sovereignty warrant that when the ethnocultural nation is threatened by elites and national others, and these ‘plans’ must be defeated.
Datum: The EU and UN want to force Hungary to accept refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.
Ethnopopulist Warrant: Sovereign nations have the right to pursue their own interests without external infringements by global elites and national others.
Claim: Hungary must adopt national-level immigration policies rather than accept EU-level solutions.
Rebuttals to this claim can be found in the minutes of debates on the parliamentary floor, where opposition MPs have had the opportunity to question Fidesz policies. The main counter-argument was that bellicose diplomacy was harmful to Hungarian interests because it damaged its relations with valued Western allies. For example, following a series of diplomatic dust-ups with other EU countries and the US,Footnote 4 opposition MPs argued that Szijjártó’s outbursts ‘swept aside the basic principles of diplomacy’ (Demeter 2014), which contributed to the weakening of the EU, hence serving Russian rather than Hungarian interests (Szakács 2014). The government’s counter-rebuttal has been to discredit their critics as ‘Soros emberei’ (Soros agents) who were part of the Soros plan and hence colluding with globalist elites and Brussels.
Solicitation of non-traditional partnerships
The third hallmark of populist foreign policy is the diversification of partnerships through the pursuit of non-traditional allies. In 2014, the government launched a radically new foreign policy strategy called ‘Keleti Nyitás’ (‘Eastern Opening’). The strategy was later amended with a plan for ‘Déli Nyitás’ (‘Southern Opening’) to diversify Hungarian trade relations. The goal was to increase Hungarian exports to, and foreign direct investment from, non-EU countries to reduce Hungarian dependence on EU markets.Footnote 5
The pursuit of bilateral deals beyond Europe and North America is not a completely new idea. In 2011, Martonyi launched a policy of ‘Globális Nyitás’ (‘Global Opening’), which envisioned partnerships outside the EU. However, whereas the ‘Global Opening’ called for multilateral engagement on terrorism, global food and health programs ‘to strengthen Hungary’s international position’ (MFA 2011:36–37), Szijjártó’s ‘Eastern Opening’ advocated advancing Hungary’s economic interests through bilateral political and trade relations with Asian and Middle Eastern partners. Hungary has forged lasting ties with its non-traditional partners through the Russia-financed Paks nuclear power plant, the reconstruction of a Chinese-financed Budapest-Belgrade railway line, and most recently, with the planned establishment of a Chinese Fudan University in Budapest.
The ‘Eastern Opening’ has left clear institutional fingerprints on the foreign policy machinery. As of 2012, the PMO, which previously had no departments dealing with trade or the economy, introduced a State Secretariat of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which included a deputy state secretary and two general departments for trade and foreign affairs and a third for ‘multilateral and bilateral negotiations.’ Once Szijjártó was appointed as foreign minister, the MFA was renamed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), suggesting a shift toward a neo-mercantilist foreign policy. After 2014, Russia and China each had their own dedicated general departments in the MFAT. The new organization created three deputy state secretariats: one for the new allies under ‘Eastern Opening,’ one for traditional allies (‘European and American relations’), and a third for ‘economic diplomacy.’ By 2019, the deputy state secretariat for Western allies was just one unit out of the six under the deputy minister; the other five were dedicated to non-traditional allies or economic issues.
Arguments for pursuing non-traditional partnerships
The government’s arguments for foreign policy diversification start from the datum of perceived global power shifts. Hungary’s 2011 strategy document forecast a period of ‘multipolarization,’ when the leading role of the US and Europe would gradually decline. (MFA 2011:5). In successive ambassadorial speeches, Orbán declared that Hungary must adapt to this ‘new world order’ to ‘gain an advantage relative to others’ (Orbán 2015). In his speeches, he declared that diplomacy was actually a ‘race of nations’ (Orbán 2011, 2016), in which partnership diversification yielded greater payoffs than the ‘bloc mentality’ endemic in the Hungarian diplomatic corps.
To make these claims plausible, Orbán invoked a mostly national sovereignty warrant that free nations must be free to do business with non-traditional partners, regardless of their ideological character, as well as a populist warrant to that the Hungarian government must reject the dictates of the Western establishment. In an early address, he averred, ‘It is not similarity to Western strategies that makes Hungarian foreign policy good. Hungarian foreign policy is good if it serves the national interest, which has to be defined in each context’ (Orbán 2012). In this nationalist-populist argument, dual sovereignty warrants were used to reject Western imperial dictates that Hungary remain in the western liberal bloc to a foreign policy that prioritized Hungarian national interests without regard to ideology. Emphasizing Hungary’s sovereign right to manage its affairs as it pleases, Orbán argued that Hungary’s non-traditional partnerships should not meddle in the partners’ internal affairs, but should be based on pragmatic cooperation that serves the people’s interest. In other words, Hungary should not abandon the West, but rather expand beyond the Western bloc to secure economically beneficial partnerships: ‘although we sail under Western flags, an Eastern wind blows in the global economy’ (Orbán 2010, quoted in Rácz 2019).Footnote 6
Graphing Orbán’s nationalist-populist argument for the diversification of partnerships produces the following structure:
Datum: The West is in decline, and the East is on the rise.
(Nationalist-Populist) Warrant: Sovereign nations have every right to do business with anyone as long as it serves their interests, regardless of the dictates of power-holders.
Claim: Hungary needs to build new alliances, intensify its partnership with Russia, China, the Arab world.
Counter-arguments for the turn toward non-traditional partners can be identified in the statements of opposition party MPs and analysts who marshaled evidence showing that the Russian nuclear plant was expected to produce massive deficits (Candole Partners 2016), the Chinese railway did not promise significant economic returns, and the export gains from other new partnerships underperformed expectations (Kovács 2019). Others argued that economic ties with Eastern autocrats also meant political dependency and hence the loss of sovereignty (Szelényi 2014, Tóth 2014). The government rebutted these arguments by doubling down on expectations of economic benefits, while pointing out that Western critics are guilty of ‘double standards’ given their own close relations with Russia and China. (Lázár 2014).