McConnell Slams Viktor Orbán in Senate Speech

Jason Pye, Contributor to the Independent Center

Orbán’s Dealing With China Should Make National Conservatives Wake Up

Earlier this year, I published a post at FreedomWorks blasting calling attention to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian and illiberal tendencies that I recently posted here on Exiled Policy. Despite his strong criticism of the European Union (EU) and the West, as well as his kleptocratic, authoritarian, and illiberal tendencies, Orbán is a welfare queen. Orbán has so much contempt for Western liberalism that he continues to take its money. This is why he has been quick to capitulate to the EU’s demands to roll back anti-democratic actions his government has taken.

Still, Orbán has apologists in the West, including the American Conservative Union and the Heritage Foundation, both of which are quickly moving in the direction of national conservatism. In some ways, ACU and Heritage are trying to catch up to other far-right conservative organizations that have grown in prominence in recent years. Groups such as American Compass, the American Principles Project, and the Claremont Institute were pushing the far-right, integralist, national conservative agenda long before ACU and Heritage. Even the Conservative Partnership Institute latched on to national conservatism before ACU and Heritage.

You don’t have to look hard for admiration of Orbán from most of these organizations. You also don’t have to look hard to find connections to some unsavory individuals. For some of these groups, it’s a means to stay relevant amid the populist and illiberal shift in the broader conservative movement. For others, they actually believe what they’re selling and have successfully coopted the conservative movement.

Recently, though, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spoke on the floor about China. During that speech, he dedicated some time to Orbán, who has cozied up to China in ways that would make most conservatives cringe if a politician in the United States had done the same. Although it’s common for partisans to overlook the shortcomings of their leaders—whether political, policy-based, or ethical— Orbán’s friendly relationship with China is difficult to defend.

Here’s what McConnell said, via the Congressional Record:

[O]n another matter, this week, Putin is in Beijing attending what Russia and China have called a “friendship without limits,” but last week, it was President Xi who took to the road, and, notably, his warmest welcome was in Budapest, Hungary.

The visit from PRC’s leader came as more of our European NATO allies are waking up not only to the harsh reality of Russian aggression but also to the linked threats facing Western security and prosperity, to the urgent requirements of defense production, and to the particular challenge the PRC poses as a systemic rival.

But Hungary? Not so much. Viktor Orban’s government has cultivated the PRC as its top trading partner outside the EU.

It has given Beijing sweeping law enforcement authorities to hunt dissidents on Hungarian soil.

It was the first European country to join Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which other European governments–for example, like Prime Minister Meloni’s in Italy–have wisely decided to leave.

Hungary has doubled downed on Huawei. After the previous U.S. administration went to great lengths to encourage Europe to reject it, Hungary has let the PRC communications giant bake Chinese technology into the country’s 5G expansion. Even as other European nations are paying vast sums to extract Huawei from their communications infrastructure, Hungary is now home to Huawei’s European regional logistics hub–a veritable gateway to the West.

Last week, Prime Minister Orban’s government signed 19 more agreements with the PRC, from transportation infrastructure to potential nuclear cooperation.

A joint statement described the two countries’ relationship as “an all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” that is between Hungary and the PRC.

But the details of China’s growing influence in Budapest should raise red flags for anyone seriously concerned about strategic competition with China.

From across the Atlantic, there is good reason to appreciate a European government that is willing to question EU orthodoxy on things like shortsighted climate change policy or swim upstream in defense of conservative values. But here in Washington, we are obliged to evaluate whether allies and partners share our interests, not just our values. And whatever their pluck in dealings with EU bureaucrats in Brussels, Hungary’s leaders have cozied up to America’s greatest strategic adversary.

Now, it is one thing that a latter-day Walter Duranty who shills for Putin on Twitter might also admire the only NATO member whose leader flies to Moscow to pay obeisance to the Russian dictator, but Hungary’s willingness to serve as China’s doormat to Europe–that part is tougher to square with the position of folks in Washington for whom singular focus on China has recently become an article of faith.

The Democratic Party’s increasing willingness to abandon Israel cries out for frequent and heavy doses of reality and harsh criticism. Unfortunately, so does this increasingly muddled logic on the threats facing the West from Russia and China.

A NATO government that fawns over a Russian neo-Soviet imperialist, a European nation that rolls out the red carpet for greater predation, coercion, and espionage from a communist regime–this isn’t where America should be taking our foreign policy cues.

How about sending a high-profile diplomat and trade missions to Tehran? Hungary’s voluntary legitimization of the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism? I don’t think conservatives had any time for those who suck up to Iran. Maybe aligning with autocrats is in Hungary’s interest, but let’s return from Budapest and discuss what is in America’s interest.

America has an interest in strong allies who are willing to pull more of the weight of collective defense in the face of threats from Russia, Iran, and China. We could have welcomed two more such allies to our ranks much sooner if not for Orban’s obstruction of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO. Not only do these countries have robust defense industries and capable militaries, they also each have companies that offer safer alternatives to Chinese 5G technology.

And while many of us in Washington were urging the EU to do more to support Ukraine, Hungary–Hungary–was blocking the greater EU burden-sharing. Frankly, Hungary stands at the crossroads of three powers bent on undermining our security and prosperity. And the Orban government is modeling what not to do in the face of these challenges.

My message to America’s European allies has been the same, no matter their politics or their culture: Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are working together to undermine us. And we need to move faster to rebuild the hard power we need to deter and defeat aggression and hold one another accountable to share the burden of collective defense.

There is plenty of work left to do on this front.

Read between the lines, and it’s not hard to see that McConnell is talking directly to grifters in the Senate like Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance, as well as the national conservatives who have fawned over Orbán as some model conservative leader. He’s a step away from a full-blown authoritarian. But it seems that’s what national conservatives want and why they idolize him so much. By all accounts, Orbán is a corrupt leader and a racist who is trampling on political rights and some liberties. He even raided and nationalized private pensions. Yet, he is placed on a pedestal by many in the conservative movement.

Another problem here is that China has run circles around the United States with its Belt-and-Road Initiative. They’ve managed to successfully influence modern economies and developing nations through investment in those countries. It’s a real problem that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention in Congress. China is actively trying to do it again with BRICS—a partnership between Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Iran, and several other countries. Part of the mutual arrangement is a payment system that serves as an alternative to SWIFT. A common currency, similar to what the EU has, is being studied. This currency system, if enacted, could be a competitor to the U.S. Dollar for the world’s reserve currency.

Look, I’m not as hawkish on China as most of my colleagues in the policy world (I don’t support banning TikTok if it does divest from ByteDance, for example), but I’m not a dove. China is clearly a threat, and they’re expanding their influence among countries that are rolling back democracy, authoritarian, or hostile to the United States. Orbán is already awful, but he’s aiding China in its long-term goals. No one—not even national conservatives—should continue to idolize him.

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