Another political appointee as U.S. ambassador to Hungary?

Way back in May, Al Kamen of The Washington Post wrote on his popular blog “In the Loop” that about fifty new ambassadors will be named  by Barack Obama. As he said, “many high-rolling Obama contributors have been jockeying for these plum jobs since the day after the election.” Kamen mentioned a few of the possible appointees and among them was Colleen Bell, the producer of the TV soap “The Bold and the Beautiful,” who “is in line for a posting, perhaps Belgium or Hungary.” Well, it looks as if it is Hungary. It is not yet official, but people in the know think that her appointment is likely.

Those who are not familiar with American soap operas–I’m one of them–can learn from that the daytime show, which started in 1987, focuses on the trials and tribulations of the beautiful people of the fashion world in Beverly Hills.

Colleen Bell might be the next ambassador to Hungary / Source:

Colleen Bell might be the next ambassador to Hungary. Source:

According to Wikipedia, Colleen Bell is also a philanthropist and an advocate for the environment, arts, and social causes. And what is most important when it comes to an ambassadorship is that she and her husband are generous contributors to Democratic causes and specifically to the Obama campaign. Just as Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis, the last U.S. ambassador to Hungary (2010-2013) was. April H. Foley (2006-2009) was a contributor to Republican causes (and was George W. Bush’s girlfriend at the Harvard Business School). For three years, between October 2003 and August 2006, a cousin of the elder Bush got the job after Nancy Goodman Brinker (2001-2003), another generous contributor to the Republican party, was called back to occupy an important position in the Bush campaign.

In the last twenty years all U.S. ambassadors to Hungary were political appointees. In fact, with the exception of the ambassadors appointed immediately after World War I and World War II, career diplomats rarely served as ambassadors in Budapest. The list of U.S. ambassadors to Hungary is available online.

When Barack Obama ran for office he promised to change the system of rewarding top donors with ambassadorships. As you can see, the practice is continuing unabated. I suppose one could argue that these appointees have the advantage of easier access to the president. But they operate within the framework of the State Department, not the White House, so this so-called advantage rarely makes a real difference.

How have the last two ambassadors worked out? Foley did more harm than good. She was an ardent neo-conservative who suspected communists around every corner. She received plenty of ammunition to feed her distorted view of Hungarian politics from Viktor Orbán, who charmed her. She consulted more with the opposition than with government officials. One of her favorites was János Martonyi, who is capable of looking like a perfect democrat and a moderate but who continues in his post as foreign minister despite being entirely ignored by the prime minister, who conducts his own foreign policy with his minions. Foley fed all of her suspicions to the State Department, whose staff seemed to have been taken in by her misinformation and became convinced that the Hungarian government was courting Putin’s Russia. At one point the relationship between Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and April Foley was so strained that they refused to speak to each other.

As for Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, I devoted at least three posts to her. To give you an idea of her skill in reading people, she said in an interview with HVG that Orbán reminded her of the Bill Clinton of twenty years earlier. The two men resemble each other mostly because of “their commitment and passion for people.” In the interview Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis mentioned that she had also met with Gordon Bajnai, then prime minister, but it seems that Bajnai didn’t make much of an impression on her. I can only assume that this Obama appointee didn’t know that Orbán had until the very last moment been keeping fingers crossed for a Republican victory and considered Sarah Palin “an extraordinarily talented politician, an excellent debater, and a very successful governor.”

At the Central European University in Budapest she gave a lecture where someone asked her opinion on the new constitution. She could have said that she hopes that the new constitution will be democratic, but no, she felt compelled to add that “the new constitution is being written by people who are well qualified. The new constitution will be a good one. The rule of law, the freedom of the press and expression will be ensured.” This was the U.S. ambassador who is supposed to remind Viktor Orbán and his government about Hungary’s commitment to democratic values and the rule of law.

And I understand that this woman, who surely had not the foggiest idea of what was going on around her, was hoping to be reappointed. Luckily that didn’t happen, but a political appointee from the world of soaps doesn’t strike me as an obvious improvement. Perhaps we will all be pleasantly surprised and Colleen Bell will be a terrific, hard-hitting U.S. ambassador who has a thorough understanding of the political situation in which she has to operate. But given the track record of political appointees going to Budapest with little knowledge and zero experience I don’t expect miracles.

I must say that I simply don’t understand what the United States government is doing. Don’t they realize how significant Hungary has become in the last three or four years? The Orbán regime’s undemocratic practices are starting to look attractive to some of the countries in East-Central Europe. There are indications of a possible return of the Kaczyński regime in Poland and danger signs in Romania and Bulgaria as well. An experienced, tough-minded U.S. ambassador is needed in Budapest. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of appointing Colleen Bell.


  1. The US long ago realized that Hungary is no. 179 on its priority list. I mean right now US has Syra, Egypt, Yemen, Iran on its plate, has to deal with the fall-out from the NSA scandal regarding the whole of Latin America (except for Colombia) and others, it has the Pacific region with China claiming the whole of South China Sea, und so weiter.

    Eastern Europe does not matter any more (certainly not as it did in the early 90’s when the state department was still full of cold warriors with affinity or at least sympathy to the region).

    The neocons under W were very much afraid of Russia’s increasing its influence in the Central-Eastern region (South Stream and the like), which was partly why various officials talked against Gyurcsány in Népszabadság (interestingly it is always the most reliable place to give space to the US) numerous times. But the neocons were extremely sensitive about energy issues (not surprisingly with Cheney and and Iraq especially) and the Obama administration does not care about Russia that obssessively and the energy lobby has somewhat less traction in politics too.

    Orbán as Putin and others know well that the US is bogged down in uncountable conflicts, and unless the US bombs and sends drones it has no real leverage or even time to deal with paces like Hungary (the US has much more leverage over Western Europe as Western countries depend more on their exports to the US, plus as we know from our EU experiences, the Western European countries are just not tough enough so they don’t dare to say no to the US).

    In addition, I think the US knows somewhere that the US is not popular in Hungary and Hungary has no real interest in the US being stronger here.

    Surely people in Hungary have a love and hate relationship with the US (as everywhere) but the critical voices in Hungary seem to be stronger — we see that Hungarians tend not embrace capitalism that much and seem to want to resist modernist ideas coming from the US (relentless pushing of GM food, gay marriage etc.)

    Poland is big and is terrified of Russia as are the Baltic countries and they will do everything for the US to get a better protection, the Czech Republic is also rather welcoming (I am less sure of the reasons), as is Romania (as evidenced by their respective missile shield participation, purchase of American weapons etc.). Hungary, not so much, and I think politicians on both sides in Hungary try to keep Hungary’s ‘independence’ from the US, for once you let the US build a military facility or CIA center (Macedonia) or whatnot, they will try to meddle into everything. Which is one thing, but they usually have zero idea about Hungary or the region in general, they simply can’t be of help in this region too much (though the bombing of Serbia twice was probably helpful after the utter impotence of the EU, but that is about it in the last 20 years).

    Plus don’t forget that the lady really expects to have an extended vacation in Hungary, sure a bit of work too (done mostly by the regular staff), but mostly to enjoy herself for a couple of years. Smart politicians like Orbán know this and will use it out to his advantage, he will charm this lovely lady in no time.

    Like in1956, any change in Hungary must come from within, as it is always the case.

  2. Well, take heart Eva, not all political appointees or show business people are dipshits. Shirley Temple Black proved herself a capable diplomat in both Prague and Ghana.

  3. Bluntly it seems the way of selecting ambassadors in the states would be something Orban would be very comfortable with. Rewarding friends and supporters and putting the interests of political allies ahead of the interests of people or country seems to be where these champions of modern democracy find some common ground.

  4. Eva

    I think your impression of the last Ambassador is incorrect. She was very diligent, constantly challeneged this Government and I think the Embassy as a whole understand well the situation in Hungary, even if the Ambassador did not know the details of the Constitution. If you remember also, the Ambassador pushed hard to get Secretary Clinton to visit a couple of years ago (they are I understand personally close), and at that meeting Clinton very publicly showed “support” for the opposition. Finally, by all accounts the Ambassador had no desire to remain. In fact, she had hoped to leave right after the school year was over, but was asked to stay until August. She has bigger ambitions than being US. Ambassador to Budapest, I believe. The truth is that the U.S. looks at its relationship with Hungary (like many fairly irrelevant countries) through the vantage of Hungary’s co-operation with the U.S. military in places like Afghanistan. And here, Hungary has largely said and did the right thing and Martonyi has said and done the right thing. Anyone at the Embassy will tell you that relations between the Embassy and the Foreign Ministry are not bad. It is relations between the Embassy and the PM’s office that are not so good.

  5. In a certain sense it doesn’t really matter too much who the US Ambassador is, as long as that person keeps relations between the two countries stable and presents the United States in a good light. In that respect I think the previous ambassador did a decent job all in all. And I think this new one could conceivably do a similar job.

    I disagree with you Éva that the Obama needs to nominate a tough-minded ambassador to Hungary, for two reasons. 1) It won’t make a difference, the government won’t change its policy anyway, 2) it’s exactly what the government wants, someone they can openly challenge and it gives them another reason to say “See, another big power picking on poor little Hungary!” They need someone to fight against and a combative US Ambassador can provide that pretext. Then we’ll be seeing little kiosks at the shopping mall asking people to sign a “Petíció az amerikai elnyomás ellen”. You think I’m joking.

    The best thing the US could do is nominate someone innocuous as ambassador and stay out of internal Hungarian politics, at least openly.

  6. SOS
    I love Hungary.
    But a rotten core has derailed the country so often, again and again.
    Hungary is remaining a main concern in Europe today.
    We need a new competent carrier diplomat as US ambassador in Budapest
    PS. We also need a new competent US president in DC for a change,

  7. buddy :
    In a certain sense it doesn’t really matter too much who the US Ambassador is, as long as that person keeps relations between the two countries stable and presents the United States in a good light.

    I’m afraid this commenter and probably all those who disagreed with and/or criticised Prof. Balogh for wanting a strong career diplomat in Budapest, misunderstood the situation. I suspect Prof. Balogh’s intention was to hope for someone who rather than “keeping relations between the two countries stable and presenting the US in a good light” stood up to Orban and represented the ideas of democracy to Fidesz, an ambassador who might have, with the might of his/her country behind her, arrested the shift to the right in the whole region. While I am not in the camp of the typically Hungarian pessimists, who have already decided that we are looking into at least 20 years of quasi fascist dictatorship in Hungary, neither am I amongst those who have illusions in the role of the US as the champion of democracy. Prof. Balogh may believe that a strong Democrat with experience and guts might make a difference, but I’m inclined to think that any change in Hungary will have to come from within. It is not only those who mistrust foreigners and swallowed Orban’s populist, chauvinist propaganda whole who have a critical and often negative opinion of the United States and its role in the world. Many intelligent and left of centre intellectuals watch world events and see the role the US plays in the third world. It is not without reason that Orban’s henchmen often quote instances from the last few decades where the US acted as the policeman of the world and where it colonised countries with and without guns. Not that Fidesz have any right to be righteous about this, but the demagogue will always use every chink in its enemy’s armour!

    So I think that while the practice of making totally unsuitable members of the public (albeit with lots of money for party funds) ambassadors is probably as bad as what has happened with the tobacco shops and the land deals in Hungary, I do not think that the lady from the soaps will make much of a difference to the spread of Orban’s dictatorial ideas and practices in Central and Eastern Europe one way or another. The only ones to put a stop to that are the peoples of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Now, anyone with a good idea on how to achieve that movement and unity, please come forward and let us know!!

  8. “…change from within…”

    The only power in the world that can effect a change in Hungary is the Papacy and the new pope. If he comes to Hungary, revamps the Catholic Church in Hungary, forces the confession of church members’ activities during communism and challenges the government to reveal those long-held, secret documents…..all that may begin the slow process of change in “Christian Hungary”, and not until then.

    The Church. There is no better place to start.

  9. Petofi1 – please activate your mind.
    Orban is still in power.
    Marsovszki has described him as the most dangerous racist ruler of Europe, probably the world.

  10. Petofi1 makes a good point. The Catholic church would normally promote loving your neighbour (eg Romania), forgiving people for the past (eg Socialists), offering compassion (eg to the homeless), curbing avarice (eg tobacco) and showing humility (eg in handling a 2/3 majority).

  11. In the age of instant trans-global communications, the entire idea of ambassadorships is an anachronism. If Obama wants to talk to David Campbell, he tells his secretary “Get me David on the phone!” There is no need for a professional diplomat to represent a government’s interests in a foreign country, except in truly problematic nations such as Egypt or Bosnia.
    The U.S. ambassador in Budapest is nothing more than expensive political tourism. The diplomatic corps does nothing except take and execute orders from Washington. All Colleen Bell needs to do is attend ceremonies and look pretty (which she is very good at). The State Department will handle all thorny questions related to Orban, as they have been doing for years.

  12. Johnny Boy :
    She is a charming beauty. I hope she will be appointed.

    Johnny Boy, mouthing the inanities he learned at his Fidesz masters’ feet:

    “Szep lehets, de nem okos.” (“You can be pretty, but not smart.”)

  13. Petofi1 :
    Johnny Boy, mouthing the inanities he learned at his Fidesz masters’ feet:
    “Szep lehets, de nem okos.” (“You can be pretty, but not smart.”)

    No, I didn’t say she wasn’t smart. That is only your own stupidity.

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