Although it was almost a year ago that Colleen Bell was nominated to be ambassador to Hungary, her confirmation is still in limbo, along with that of thirty others. The American chargé d’affaires in Budapest, Andre M. Goodfriend, is therefore serving as the head of the mission.
Mr. Goodfriend joined the State Department in 1987; he served in Tel Aviv, New Delhi, and Moscow before being posted to Budapest in August 2013. As an overachieving undergraduate he got degrees in philosophy, classical Greek, French, and radio-television at the University of Arizona and subsequently received an M.A. in communication from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has studied Hungarian, Hebrew, French, Russian, Greek (both classical and modern), Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, and Yiddish. Quite an accomplishment. In any case, he has ample experience to handle the affairs of the Budapest embassy at this very difficult juncture of U.S.-Hungarian relations.
Shortly after his arrival in Budapest he decided to start a bilingual blog, Civil Voices. Every article appears in both English and Hungarian. The number of comments is modest but growing. Some are in English, others in Hungarian. Almost all of his posts are relevant to Hungary, even those that deal with specifically American topics. For instance, Mr. Goodfriend’s very first post, about the history of racial discrimination, was written on Martin Luther King Day. Yet the post begins with a commemoration of the 69th anniversary of the Soviet Army’s liberation of the Budapest ghetto and the 68th anniversary of Hungary’s expulsion of its German-speaking citizens. The message was that we must face our past and learn from it.
The most recent blog, written on August 5, is entitled “Love Me, I’m a Liberal/Szeress engem, liberális vagyok.” In it, the American chargé talks about the need to define terms as well as the need for ongoing discussion and engagement to clarify terms. He is asking for some clarification of what Prime Minister Viktor Orbán means by “liberal” and conversely “illiberal.”
The United States government is obviously trying to engage the Hungarian citizenry even if they can’t engage the Hungarian government. Of course, I have no idea how close and/or frequent contacts are between the U.S. Embassy and the Hungarian foreign ministry but I doubt that they are at all frequent. Don’t forget that the ministry is in total turmoil. Old hands have been removed; new, inexperienced people are taking over. The present minister is half way out the door on his way to Brussels while Péter Szijjártó, Orbán’s man who was chosen for the task of catching “the Eastern wind,” is not at all interested in either the European Union or the United States. Instead, he has been madly looking for opportunities in the Middle East and Central Asia.
In addition to the blog that reaches few people, Mr. Goodfriend, seemingly at the behest of the State Department, approached Magyar Nemzet asking for an interview. At least this is what one gathers from the first couple of interview questions that appeared in the August 5 issue of the paper. The English original can be found here. The journalist’s last name is Zord, which in Hungarian means grim, morose, sullen, and I must say that he didn’t belie his name. It would be wonderful if the journalists of Magyar Nemzet were as zealous as Zord was when they question Viktor Orbán or any other members of the government.
The interview ran under the headline “The American dream still exists.” The bold-faced introduction, however, was an indictment: “America is putting its allies under surveillance, torturing POWs, and using police state methods” and yet it is worried “about Hungarian democracy of all things.” Magyar Nemzet was less interested in what the American chargé had to say than what its journalist accused the United States of.
Without going into the details of this fairly long interview, let me make a few observations. The journalist conducting the interview was surprisingly inarticulate. Moreover, at times he showed that he is not familiar with basic facts. For example, he talked about the “American ambassador to Jerusalem” when we know that the U.S. Embassy, along with 81 others, is located in Tel Aviv because of the controversy over the status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. When it came to concepts like liberalism, liberal democracy, and globalism, he showed that he knew little more about these subjects than what he read in Orbán’s speech. Therefore, Andre Goodfriend had a relatively easy time with him, and I must say he handled the interview very well.
In fact, the journalist, who is after all a Hungarian–born and educated–could learn Hungarian history and even some Hungarian etymology from Mr. Goodfriend. After Zord extolled the virtues of nation states, Goodfriend rightly pointed out that the golden age of modern Hungary was between 1867 and 1910 when the country was part of a large and ethnically diverse empire. Hungary not only prospered economically but excelled “in the sciences, the arts, music, literature, architecture, etc.” He then drew a parallel between the empire of this golden age and the European Union. Moreover, he suggested that perhaps 2004, the year Hungary joined the Union, is a much more important date for the future of the country than Orbán’s choice for the dawn of a new era, the 2008 financial crisis.
While discussing the NGOs, whom the interviewer described as paid political activists and enforcers of foreign interests, Goodfriend reminded him that Viktor Orbán and his organization, Fidesz, received plenty of financial support for the very purpose of loosening the grip of the communist regime on the country in 1988 and 1989. George Soros naturally could not be left out of any discussion on NGOs, although lately Soros’s contributions are not substantial. The interviewer accused Soros’s “network” of conspiracy against the right-wing government. This accusation was artfully countered by Goodfriend who gave a lecture on the etymology of the Hungarian word “összeesküvés,” which implies a secret plan to which the members of the conspiracy swear. By contrast, financial assistance from either the Soros Foundation or the Norway Grants is given in a transparent fashion.
All in all, I think, Andre Goodfriend did very well, and I’m sure that the State Department is satisfied with this interview.
As a footnote I might add that I have been noticing in the last few days certain signs of backpedaling by the right-wing media. Even Zsolt Bayer emphasized in his column today that the world should not take Orbán’s speech so seriously because after all it was only delivered AT A SUMMER CAMP, in all caps! Moreover, what is important is not so much liberalism, which he equates with neoliberalism, but “the rule of law.” It is the rule of law that we must defend and that will be defended in Hungary under the governance of Viktor Orbán.
It seems to me that the vehement reaction, especially in the United States, to Orbán’s ideas on the illiberal state took him and the people around him by surprise. Viktor Orbán and his closest associates have been silent on the subject, but apparently some of his advisers and Fidesz members of the European Parliament admitted to Ildikó Csuhaj, the usually very well-informed journalist of Népszabadság, that they consider Orbán’s fiercely anti-American attitudes counterproductive and apparently recommended that he reconsider his policies toward the United States. I understand that the new Hungarian ambassador will be Réka Szemerkényi, who apparently has good connections in Washington, although I doubt that she will be able to warm up her old friendships with American diplomats and politicians under the present circumstances.