By Réka Szemerkényi A significant new push for redirecting United States-Hungary relations took place in a Rayburn House Office Building hearing room this spring. Members of the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats appraised the U.S.-Hungary relationship with a clear-headed recognition that the two countries are strategic and economic allies — and remain dedicated to the fundamental values of democracy and freedom.
As Hungary’s new ambassador to the United States, it is my fondest wish that this mutual respect will spawn further growth in our centuries-old friendship. Like any representative democracy, Hungary faces challenges. But we have remained steadfast in our initial commitment to step out of the ruins of the communist past and to create a free country where citizens can enjoy the freedom they lacked for so long under communist rule.
A quarter-century ago, as the fledging Hungarian state emerged from Soviet rule and began to reform its government and economic system, it naturally looked to the West. The United States responded in kind, buttressing our early steps toward a market economy and a free democracy with enormously important economy building initiatives such as the Support for East European Democracy Act.
Hungarians and Americans are united together by our commitment to freedom and opportunity, a foundation that both countries stand on today. Our democracy shall not be the mirror image of that of America’s, but the guiding principles and values are the same. Over the past two-plus decades, we have learned to adapt to an ever-changing and tough geopolitical climate in Central and Eastern Europe. These exigencies – from the war in the Balkans to the 2008 Great Recession – have inevitably created policy shifts and had an impact on the mindset of our electorate. But not on our values.
The changes in Hungary, driven by a new governing party — despite being democratically elected and legally enacted — have recently caused tension with our American and European Union allies. Counter-productive and sometimes partisan public comments questioning the Hungarian reforms and policies soured a historically constructive relationship.
On May 19, I was asked to appear before the bipartisan members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee. I seized the opportunity to highlight the importance of the United States as an ally to Hungary, both historically and contemporarily. I described Hungarian issues that are prone to misinformation in order to clarify the committee's understanding. Further, I acknowledged areas where our two nations could work together and learn from one another.
My sentiment — and by extension that of the Hungarian government’s — was echoed by the committee. Chairman Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., opened the hearing by declaring, “Both of our nations have fought for our freedoms and as we each work to perfect our democracies, we should be able to speak frankly and honestly in the spirt of mutual benefit.” The committee’s membership should be applauded for the even-handed and open manner in which it approached an important relationship. Rather than delivering rhetoric to score political points, members laid the foundation to tangibly improve a damaged relationship.
This development is encouraging and intriguing. Respect for each other as democracies is an important message for Hungary and many other nations with evolving democratic institutions. “Quite often what happens when they follow the American example, you get governments that don't work because they're not Americans,” asserted Rohrabacher. This statement is especially insightful. The Hungarian democracy is hitting its stride precisely because it is not an exact replica of American democracy — but what is right for the Hungarian people. The committee’s appreciation for this will resonate in Hungary and with the 1.5 million Hungarian-Americans here in America to usher in a new era of relations.
We have much to learn from one other and much to cooperate on. In fact, as the hearing was occurring in Washington, D.C., a contingent of Hungarian soldiers was joining the combat against ISIS in conjunction with our Western allies. I am thankful that House members acknowledge that together, as friends, we can discuss constructive initiatives. And together, we can learn how to move forward as partners in an ever-changing world.
Réka Szemerkényi is Hungary’s Ambassador to the United States.
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