Johann Georg Hulsemann

The Hungarian government’s wishful thinking about a change at the U.S. embassy

It is with a certain amusement that I have been watching the Hungarian right-wing media’s attempts to discredit M. André Goodfriend, the American chargé d’affaires of the Budapest embassy. After all, he is currently the top representative of the United States, a country the Hungarian right has never been too fond of. Their dislike of the United States only intensified after 2001 when George W. Bush found Viktor Orbán’s post-9/11 behavior so objectionable. The Hungarian prime minister is still persona non grata in the White House. During the last two U.S. presidential campaigns Viktor Orbán and some high-level Fidesz politicians demonstrated their preference for the Republican party, assuming that a Republican administration would have better relations with a national-Christian “conservative” Hungarian government. Of course, their assumption that Republicans would be more tolerant of an “illiberal state” that is in cahoots with Vladimir Putin’s Russia shows a total misunderstanding of American political reality.

Another Hungarian misconception is that it is Goodfriend who is personally responsible for the strained relations between Washington and Budapest because he oversteps the diplomatic bounds that are supposed to direct his behavior. If he would just stay put, never leave the embassy, not attend demonstrations, and not use Twitter, then American “attacks” on the current Hungarian government would come to an end. And since the reporters on the state television’s newscast and the journalists at Magyar Nemzet and  Válasz blame André Goodfriend personally, their attacks also concentrate on his person. With eagle eyes they watch his every step and find fault with everything he says. By now even his wife, Frances Goodfriend, has become a target. Pesti srácok, a far-right internet site, reported that she attended the demonstration in front of the parliament on November 17. A day later Magyar Nemzet reported that the Goodfriends visited László Bitó’s open house. Since Bitó often writes in Galamus, an internet opinion portal that is allegedly close to Ferenc Gyurcsány, the next thing we heard was that Goodfriend “is playing from Ferenc Gyurcsány’s score.” In brief, behind the current strained relations between the United States and Hungary is none other than the arch-enemy of Viktor Orbán, Ferenc Gyurcsány.

The Hungarian right became terribly offended when Goodfriend wrote on Twitter: “I think of Webster-Hulsemann in considering US support for shared values” and gave a link to “Interesting Historical Notes.” What was this Webster-Hulsemann exchange? In 1850 the Austrian Johann Georg Hulsemann, the Austrian representative in Washington, objected to American interference in the domestic affairs of Hungary. He stated that his government “deemed it proper to preserve a conciliatory deportment making ample allowance for the ignorance of the Cabinet of Washington on the subject of Hungarian affairs and its disposition to give credence to the mendacious rumors which are propagated by the American press.” To this statement Secretary of State Daniel Webster replied in kind: “Nothing will deter either the Government or the people of the United States from … forming and expressing their own opinions freely and at all times upon the great political events which may transpire among the civilized nations of the earth.” Webster’s letter to Hulsemann can be read in its entirely here.

Well, that inspired Zsuzsanna Körmendy, one of the most demagogic journalists of Magyar Nemzet, to write a lengthy op/ed piece on the subject. The whole article is full of insults and personal attacks on André Goodfriend. She accuses the American diplomat of being ignorant of history and says that if he just read one grade 8 history textbook “he wouldn’t say such stupidities.” Moreover, the comparison is false. Zachary Taylor, the president at the time, simply expressed his opinion and “did not send a note to the Hungarian government about banning certain foreigners from U.S. soil.” In the 1850s the United States was a democratic country and “if America today would be as much of a freedom loving country as it was then, perhaps it would look upon the Orbán government differently. It would appreciate more [Hungarian] attempts at independent solutions.” All in all, the reference to Webster and Hulsemann is, she argues, insulting to the democratic people of Hungary who overwhelmingly voted for Viktor Orbán and his team.

"Let's hope we will be also grateful" / Esti Hírlap

“Let’s hope we will be also grateful” / Esti Hírlap

And then came the great news for the Hungarian right. On November 21 The Washington Post reported that, after “after much delay and hand wringing,” on December 1 the Senate will vote on the confirmation of Colleen Bell who was nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Hungary. Well, that piece of news roused the right-wing journalists in Hungary. On the very same day Esti Hírlap reported the news with this headline: “First the turkey–then perhaps there will be an ambassador.” A picture under the headline showed a Thanksgiving turkey with the caption: “Let’s hope we will be grateful too!” Válasz was also inspired by the news: “The days of Goodfriend are numbered: Ten days and we’ll know it all.” But the most outrageous handling of the news came from Híradóthe official news broadcast of the state television. The television news claimed to know that Goodfriend will be recalled because “lately he appeared too often in left-wing and liberal circles.” According to Goodfriend’s “official” autobiography, “earlier he worked for the Bureau of International Organization” which, according to the information Híradó received, “worked out methods with which the local opposition in conjunction with civic organizations can overthrow the government of post-Soviet states if the interests of the United States so desire.”

Well, that’s quite something, especially because that utter nonsense was read on a newscast that can be watched nationwide without cable. So, let’s see what this “insidious” organization actually does. The Bureau of International Organization Affairs is part of the State Department and it is subordinated to the Undersecretary of Political Affairs. According to the official website:  “The Bureau of International Organization Affairs (IO) is the U.S. Government’s primary interlocutor with the United Nations and a host of international agencies and organizations.” So much for responsible reporting by Hungarian state television.

As for these people’s fondest hope that M. André Goodfriend will be recalled because he was a bad boy, well, dream on, fellows. Most likely nothing will change after December 1. I suggest taking a look at the Wikileaks’ documents pertaining to the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. That gives an idea of the division of labor among the top officials of an embassy. Colleen Bell, if confirmed, will be the public face of the American presence in Budapest while the second in charge will most likely be Goodfriend, a professional diplomat. And I’m sure he will continue to tweet and to visit public events just as before.