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NATO punishment won't make Hungary's dictator change course

NATO punishment won't make Hungary's dictator change course
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Like several authoritarians elsewhere, the leader of ostensibly democratic Hungary — Prime Minister Viktor Orban — is taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to consolidate power at the expense of democratic values. Some have argued that the time is right to kick Hungary out of key international organizations such as NATO. But for several reasons, the transatlantic alliance isn’t the right vehicle for punishing Budapest. Instead, Washington and other like-minded allies ought to turn up the heat bilaterally.

So far, U.S. policy toward Budapest appears to be driven by the perceived necessity of keeping Hungary on its side, relative to Russia and China. But this overestimates Hungary’s importance and underestimates the price the West pays to ignore Budapest’s backsliding. Acting now — bilaterally — is necessary to begin compelling Hungary to change course, set an example, and prevent Budapest from becoming a trojan horse for nefarious Russian operations.

Late last month, the Hungarian parliament approved a law that would permit Orban to rule by decree, bypassing the legislature, for an indeterminate amount of time. This comes on top of emergency powers the parliament granted Orban in 2016 during the migrant crisis. Today, the Hungarian constitutional court is theoretically a remaining check on Orban’s power, but observers argue it’s already stacked with his loyalists. Clearly, Orban is intent on consolidating further what was already an impressive degree of authoritarianism in the heart of democratic Europe.

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As a result, some have called for Hungary to be kicked out of the European Union and NATO. The EU already had begun to push back on Orban’s moves to silence independent media, bring the courts to heel, and neuter civil society, but its efforts haven’t succeeded — yet — in altering Hungary’s trajectory. It’s possible that the EU now may toughen its line toward Budapest.

Meanwhile, though, NATO and its member states have done little, at least publicly. To be clear, there are good reasons for the alliance to consider downgrading relations with Hungary, placing it on probation of some kind, or otherwise penalizing Budapest. NATO’s founding treaty, to which Hungary is a signatory, notes the alliance is “founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Countenancing a member state’s flouting of these bedrock principles doesn’t just ignore Hungarians’ loss of their rights, it also undermines alliance unity in the face of rising geopolitical competition with authoritarian governance models embodied by China and Russia. 

More tangibly, recently improved ties between Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinScarborough says he'll never return to Republican Party after GOP supported Trump Will Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy? Russian vessel threatens to ram US warship in disputed waters in Sea of Japan MORE and Orban’s government present other serious problems. At best, they weaken NATO’s united front toward Russia over its actions in Ukraine; at worst, they represent a potentially grave security risk.

The alliance’s reluctance to do much over Hungary stems from several factors. First, the NATO treaty has no provisions for sanctioning, punishing or expelling a member state. Individual member states may decide to withdraw from the alliance, but neither NATO nor any other country can force them to do so.

Second, NATO has a long history of turning a blind eye to democratic backsliding among its members. Greece was led by a military dictatorship from 1967-74, and Turkey experienced military-led coups in 1960 and 1980. And one of its founding members, Portugal, was a dictatorship until 1974. In each of these instances, geopolitical realities — namely, the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union — trumped concerns over democratic values.

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Even if the alliance treaty had provisions for punishing or expelling a member state, it’s very likely another member state would side with Hungary, frustrating consensus. Poland and Turkey come to mind, given their own struggles with democratic backsliding in recent years — and likely concern that they might be shown the exits next.

Some might add to this list Hungary’s important geographic attributes, sitting in the center of Europe, bordering Ukraine, and forming a land bridge from allies in the south to those in the north. Hungary isn’t a geopolitical lynchpin, however. It doesn’t compare in this regard to any of the Baltic States, which sit at the epicenter of strategic competition in Europe, or to Turkey, with its long Black Sea coastline, its borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria, and its control of the Bosporus Strait. And if NATO ever needed to quickly move forces by land between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Baltics, it could transit Ukraine, which never has been friendlier toward the West, or Austria, which also has become closer to NATO.

Instead of utilizing NATO, Washington and like-minded allies should turn up the heat on Budapest bilaterally. For the United States, this might take several forms such as cutting off foreign military financing, more aggressively supporting NGO efforts to uncover corruption, or placing restrictions on U.S. foreign direct investment in Hungary. Bilateral steps such as these are necessary to prevent further damage to Western interests, and they’re likely to be far more effective than efforts to kick Hungary out of the alliance.

John R. Deni, Ph.D., is a research professor of JIIM security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and the author of “NATO and Article 5.” The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @JohnRDeni.