‘Hopefully, Hungarian-American relations will not be about insults’

Szabolcs Takács, the ambassador of Hungary to Washington, D.C., talked to Neokohn about attending the inauguration with 25,000 troops, the relations they expect to have with the Biden administration and what he is saying to the American people about George Soros. Interview. 

Mr. Ambassador, you are one of only a few people who could attend the inauguration of Joe Biden. What security measures were taken before the ceremony? What were your impressions?

Yes, indeed, I represented the Government of Hungary at the inauguration—this is quite usual, it is always ambassadors who represent their country at the inauguration of a US president, they are the ones formally invited. The situation, however, was not typical, I should say that it was atypical from several aspects. Firstly, we have been facing a global challenge for almost a year now the like of which we have not seen for at least a hundred years. Obviously, I’m referring to the coronavirus pandemic, which posed limitations to this event as well. Another unusual element was that the former president of the United States did not attend the inauguration of the new president. Naturally this happened for domestic reasons, because of the divergent approaches to the elections. Secondly, certain events took place in early January in the US, at the Capitol, which prompted increased security measures.

The situation in Washington was as if it were a war zone. 25,000 troops were deployed to support the DC police and the secret service teams already on duty. Naturally, it was also a significant display of political power.

Two important parts were missing: first, the outgoing president and his wife are traditionally escorted out by the newly installed president and vice president. This, as you know, did not happen, as President Donald Trump had left Washington and travelled to Florida by that time. Secondly, the traditional inaugural luncheon was also cancelled because of the pandemic. So some customary elements were missing, but overall we can say that the ceremony took place as it was supposed to.

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In the past 4 years, Hungarian-American relations were friendly, Trump and the Hungarian government found a lot of common ground. Biden visited Hungary in 1977, we could say he played a role in easing the relations between the two countries. This is something that we could build on, but during his campaign Biden didn’t speak positively about Hungary, he even called it a totalitarian regime at one point. In light of this, what kind of relations do you think we can expect?

Let me start with stating our intentions. It is Hungary’s intention to maintain and develop the best possible relations with the United States, regardless of what administration, what government is in charge. It is up to the citizens of the US to decide who can form a government there. We fully respect that.

These past 4 years created a strong basis for cooperation, which, I believe, we can continue if both parties act in good faith.

We trust that our relations with the new American administration will be like what we had with the previous one, since the past 4 years saw great, unprecedented political cooperation. In the years before 2016, the quality and the balance of the cooperation between the leadership of the two countries were not even close to what we saw between 2016 and 2020.

We do hope that under the new Democratic administration the political relations of the two countries will not plummet to the level where they were during the previous Democratic administration.

Hopefully, in the upcoming period Hungarian-American relations will not be about insults and labelling one another, but about how many areas the two countries have shared interests in. I think there are a lot of misunderstandings and things are knowingly or unknowingly misinterpreted in this field. Our task is to find a common framework of interpretation in those issues, too, where we seemingly have very different positions. I think with good communication, cooperation and a positive attitude on both sides we could clarify many issues.

Hungary is a great partner and ally of the United States. NATO, the defense architecture, is an important part of this cooperation, and also economic and trade relations, energy policy and many other areas. Social relations between the two countries are also great. Let’s not forget that 1.5 million Hungarians live in the US, and this has always been a strong link between the two countries.

This year we mark the 100th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and Hungary—this is a year of celebration. You mentioned the 1970s, when the current president, Mr. Biden, visited Hungary, and that is also a part of this 100-year history. After World War 1, between the two wars, the United States was an important partner of Hungary, and after 1956 many Hungarian people found their new home there. Many Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust settled in the US, and I believe that this is also a strong link. The US played a notable role in the repatriation of the Holy Crown of Hungary, and after the political transition, the US helped the free and democratic Hungary join NATO in 1999.

There are so many values that would be a shame to waste, by either party.

Ambassador Szabolcs Takács in Washington, D.C. Photo: Tony Powell

What areas may be important in the coming 4 years in US-Hungarian relations? You mentioned NATO and trade relations, for example.

I believe that it is a legitimate expectation of the US from its European allies that all NATO members must fulfil the commitments they made. We have outstanding results here. Within NATO, Hungary is one of the most reliable allies of the US. We take part in a number of international military missions that are important for the US, for example in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Recently we have made significant efforts to increase our defense budget. By 2024 at the latest, we will reach the level we committed ourselves to as NATO members, namely 2% of the GDP. What is more, in our defense spending the increase in the purchase of new equipment exceeded the expected 20%, and there are several bilateral agreements that strengthen military cooperation with the US. This is to say that the situation in security policy is very good.

I also have good news to report about trade and economic cooperation—a great partnership has evolved over the past few years.

After Germany, the United States is now the second largest investor in Hungary. Approximately 1700 American companies employ over 100,000 Hungarians. Trade between the two countries increased by almost 2.5 percent in 2019.

There is a highly sensitive, or rather a highly strategic area: cooperation in energy policy. It is also the goal of the United States to ensure wider opportunities for Central Europe, including Hungary, when it comes to energy supply. Our goal is to access not only the regional, but also the global gas market. Today is an important day in this respect (the interview was conducted on January 29), as today Minister Péter Szijjártó attended, on Krk island, Croatia, the inauguration of the LNG terminal, which became operational through collaboration with Hungarian state-owned companies. As a diplomat working in Washington, D.C., I am very proud that on January 1 an American tanker was the first to transport liquified natural gas to the terminal in Croatia. It was a historic event.

It is the first time in 70 years that Hungary can import from the global energy market, not just from the region.

There is another area that, I believe, is extremely important for the new democratic administration: climate protection and climate change. Hungary also pays particular attention to renewable energy sources, and the positions of the two countries on nuclear energy are close.  The commitments we made together in Paris and climate neutrality would be very difficult to achieve without nuclear energy.

Do you think the Biden administration will go on with the Abraham Accords? What do people in Washington think about it?

The United States and Israel have always been allies and have always had an very stable cooperation. Based on that, I think the Abraham Accords are a foreign policy legacy of the Trump administration that cannot be ignored by the new government.

Everyone begins to realize that the Hungarian government supports Israel’s stability to a greater extent and in a more consistent manner than other European partners do.

We regularly and consciously oppose all biased criticism against Israel, both in the European Union and in the UN. We emphatically supported the Middle East policy of the previous American government. It is our opinion that the peace agreements with the Arab countries have definitely contributed to the stability of the Middle East region, which, indirectly, can help the stability and security of Europe as well.

The first indications suggest that the Democratic government does not intend to ignore this. Officials of the Biden administration, including the new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, said at his confirmation hearing that they intended to build on these results. Hungary definitely welcomes this.

Ambassador Szabolcs Takács in Washington, D.C. Photo: Tony Powell

You used to serve as the Ministerial Commissioner for combating anti-Semitism—what do you think about the accusations that appear in the US press from time to time that there is anti-Semitism in Hungary? In early January, you gave an interview to Jewish Insider, and they cited the Soros-campaign as an example of anti-Semitism. An expert quoted in the article said that the Hungarian government didn’t recognize the role of the then-leaders of the country in the Holocaust. What do you think about these? 

I think this latter comment you quoted is silly, it is an unfounded, false accusation. Let me give you an example. On January 27, on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán expressed repeatedly in a public letter how unacceptable the actions of the Hungarian government were at that time. The letter is addressed to Ronald S. Lauder, the President of the Jewish World Congress, and it is publicly available. Another example is from 2017, when the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited Budapest and Mr. Orbán made it clear at a joint press conference that the Hungarian state had not protected its citizens at that time.

Minister of Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Gulyás also issued a statement on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, making it clear that 80 years ago its own homeland failed to protect the Hungarian Jewish community. He added, and it is very important, that today in Europe, it is Hungary where the Jewish community is the safest. We make efforts to protect the Jewish identity, Jewish traditions and the Jewish culture. We try to give as much as possible back to the Hungarian Jewish community.

We renovate synagogues, we give back community spaces and religious spaces so that Jewish cultural life can thrive. Besides that, there is zero tolerance against anti-Semitism in Hungary.

You mentioned George Soros. I have said many times, both here and in the US, that we are not interested in George Soros’s ethnicity. It is not us who make lists of Jews and non-Jews in Hungary. I would like to add that the Prime Minister of Israel has the same problems with the philosophy that this gentleman represents. I wouldn’t like to say something that absurd that the Israeli Prime Minister is anti-Semitic.

We would like to preserve the Judeo-Christian cultural heritage of Europe. This includes the possibility of kosher slaughter and circumcision as well. These are matters of cultural identity, and we see that in Western Europe there are many places where efforts are made to curb these.

We will always stand up against this, because if Jewish traditions and the rituals associated with the Jewish identity are banned in Europe, it practically says that the European Jewish community has no future. Hungary will not be a part of this. We obviously need to work so that it will be clear for the American Jewish community as well.

Here in the United States much more severe anti-Semitic acts take place than in Hungary. And in Western Europe, the Jewish community cannot feel safe even physically. No attacks like the ones in Paris, Halle and Pittsburgh have happened in Hungary.

If I can ask you a personal question, would you tell me how you got so close to Jewish issues, how this aspect appeared in your career and why you think the issues of the Jewish community are so important?

This is primarily important for me as a Hungarian, not only as a diplomat or someone working for the government. The Judeo-Christian culture and the fight against anti-Semitism are a part of the Hungarian identity and a part of the European identity. Europe has a Judeo-Christian heritage, not necessarily in a theological sense only, but also culturally.

I believe that the Hungarian people who took part in the death of 600,000 of their fellow Hungarians were not only murderers, they were also traitors. The Hungarian Jewish community has always contributed to the economic, cultural, social and artistic development of the country. In the Holocaust we lost the very best of the Hungarian nation.

I believe that every Hungarian should be aware of these facts and this is why education is so important.

The government has done a lot, we have passed legislation, joined international organizations, for example the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), which I had the honor to lead. We made the anti-Semitism definition of IHRA a part of Hungarian legislation and there are laws in Hungary that sanction anti-Semitic speech. In the course of my career, working in my profession, I was involved with Israel as early as 2012-2013—I was the president of the Hungarian-Israeli Joint Committee for Economic Cooperation for a year and I oversaw Hungarian-Israeli relations. In early 2015, when I started working as a state secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office, the issues related to the Jewish community and to the IHRA were transferred from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Prime Minister’s Office, which showed the intention to deal with these issues at the highest levels of government.

I believe we can be proud that the Hungarian-Jewish spirit and culture are becoming world famous again, showing globally that there is a realistic chance of revival after the Holocaust.

Slomó Köves: Antisemitism is already a security issue in the West

Slomó Köves, executive rabbi of EMIH – Hungarian Jewish Alliance talks about the 9th constitutional amendment, legacy of President Trump and whether any pressure was put on him to call the Soros-campaign antisemitic.