Recent events show why cooperation of the alt-right and illiberal players is impossible
While the international network of authoritarian forces is certainly growing and has many notable actors, the events of the past months have put a spotlight on the international embeddedness of the Hungarian regime as well.
First, Steve Bannon’s and Milo Yiannopoulos’s Budapest lectures at the end of May revealed the need to clarify the relationship between the American alt-right movement (personified by the likes of Bannon) and the rulers of the Hungarian illiberal regime. Second, the Slovene elections in early June, which saw the Orbán-backed Janez Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) win the largest percentage of votes, showcased the far-reaching the impact of Budapest’s direct support; Hungary even contributed financial aid to party-centred media in the form of investments.
In the Hungarian press coverage of both cases, the ideological proximity and almost global unity of the actors involved (as well as the opportunities for the Hungarian government) dominated the discussion. Rather than highlighting their common strengths, both Bannon’s visit and the Orbán-Jansa axis pointed out the immanent limitations of international cooperation between illiberal actors.
Although the general frame of reference for the conference “Europe of the Future” (where Bannon and Yiannopoulos spoke) was that the American “alt-right” representatives were there to valorise their Central and Eastern European forebearers simply by their own presence and appreciate the besieged system of the isolated, quasi-autocratic Hungarian leader; in reality, Orbán was not for a second in a subordinated position. Just the contrary, he simply instrumentalized, used and disposed of Bannon.
The active presence of the American “strategist” in the region, who is currently in search for prospective advisory posts, could only weaken the positions of Orbán’s circles in the business of exporting illiberalism. That is, despite spectacular displays in Budapest, the American alt-right representatives were not dominant in this game. There are two reasons for this, one is political and the other is intellectual.
Orbán: Trump before Trump
The political context is relatively simple. Yiannopoulos does not represent anyone, and Bannon is no longer in Donald Trump’s administration. The Bannon product is a mischievous, end-to-end relationship, which has already passed on its personal ideological influence to the American political sphere; an arena he no longer has any direct control over.
Bannon is a fallen man who is just scrambling to get out of a pit. He is desperately travelling through Europe – from France through Switzerland to Hungary – to find a new entrant and new master, with the help of his “national populist revolution roadshow”, that he can serve with his luxury-branded advice.
And here we get to the intellectual dimension. Bannon is far from being a uniquely clever man or a great strategist, at least definitely not from any East-Central-European context. For all his rhetoric, first constructed for American conditions and spectators, Bannon apparently lacked any knowledge of his current surroundings and was incapable of adapting to the needs of his actual audience. His lectures last year – mosaic, subjective and reminiscent of heroic tales from the past and which led to the notorious election victory – were 90% identical to each other. A stunning monotony of messages from a political advisor looking for new opportunities, only broken up by the few captatio benevolentiae phrases addressed to the hosts.
It is hard to admit but the only noteworthy analysis of Bannon’s performance in the Hungarian press was given by the notorious radical right-wing commentator István Lovas. One does not have to share his political indignation, but Lovas rightly pointed out that Bannon was incapable of recognizing the friendly foreign policy priorities of the Hungarian government towards China and Iran, wrongly labelling them as opponents in accordance with the current line of the administration in Washington. It was a remarkable mistake by Bannon and a sign for every potential European customer that his ability to adapt to the needs of local markets appears to be rather modest.
The speeches of both Bannon and Gergely Gulyás, head of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office and key speaker of the Hungarian government at the event, were dominated by the same central messages: rebellion against the destructive liberal “values”, the need to shake off the chains of political correctness, and the duty to express and represent the democratic will of the sovereign people. However, the Hungarian regime’s political calculations were primarily not embodied by a mutual commitment to Bannon’s “revolution”.
Orbán does not need allies to revolt, something he has repeatedly demonstrated since 2010. Of course, he obviously enjoyed the recognition of his pioneering role when Bannon stated that Orbán was “already Trump before Trump”.
Nevertheless, the unified framing of an illiberal discourse with global outreach, offering a common interpretative frame to the events like Trump’s presidency in the US, Brexit, Orbán’s electoral victory in Hungary, and all the objectively existing or discursively performed crises of the global economic system and European integration, does not fulfil the purpose of rebellion. In Orbán’s eyes, that discursive performance first and foremost has served in constructing the new mainstream.
The Hungarian regime’s key goal with Bannon’s performance was to reinforce in the Hungarian public one of the key messages of Fidesz propaganda by a foreign person who was in any way connected to the global power centres. The message is utterly simple: the politics of Orbán is prophetic, constructive, modern, trendy, and it acts as an antipole to that offered by the critical Hungarian and international liberal outlets which depicted Orbán’s illiberalism as a deviant, isolated crisis phenomena.
From gambit to endgame
However, there is a grave political miscalculation in Orbán’s vision, even if at a different level. As a matter of fact, irrespectively whether the new mainstream of populist nationalism will be triumphant or if it will remain the strategic opponent to the liberal model, in an international system increasingly determined by an uncooperative envy and close-minded understanding of national interest, Orbán’s influence on the destiny of the European continent will definitely not increase but decrease.
The recent electoral victories of Orbán’s likeminded political allies in Austria and Italy, and especially their positions in government, rather support than question this interpretation. .
The ambitions of the Hungarian Prime Minister have long been known to extend his personal influence over Europe. However, in the light of recent events, like the Bannon speech, it is worth clarifying that the recognition of Orbán’s pioneering role is still far from the recognition of his leadership.
In a non-cooperative international system that focuses on the fetish of national sovereignty and national interest, objective resources of hard power will become once more increasingly dominant. But especially with regard to these power resources Hungary still has a rather limited supply.
Of course, illiberal, populist, radical right-wing governments are definitely connected by their sharp critique of the EU asylum policy and its ideological proximity rooted in the common refusal of open, multicultural societies. They definitely can team up at the European level to put greater pressure on EU institutions and ideologically hostile governments. However, these common denominators will never be able to render those objective conflicts of interest obsolete that will be less and less constrained in the future by the global institutions of liberal economic integration, like the WTO or the G7, or even the European Union.
It simply does not matter that Orbán was hailed by Bannon as being “already Trump before Trump”, if there is a deep conflict between Hungary and the United States with regard to the foreign policy positions toward China and Iran, that are one of the most important strategic issues for the current US administration.
From a Hungarian perspective it is pointless to celebrate the restrictive asylum policy of the new Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, as long as an almost irrefutable conflict of interest exists between Vienna and Budapest with regard to the new EU multiannual financial framework (MFF).
The Hungarian government supports in vain the closure of Italian harbours to migrant rescue ships, as long as Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte demands an obligatory and automatic refugee relocation scheme for the EU, and the proportionate burden-sharing of asylum seekers remains a fundamental Italian interest.
Last but not least, the alliance between Poland and Hungary might be based on a strong ideological fundation and the common interest to safeguard themselves from potential European sanctions imposed due to the significant democratic backsliding in both countries. But that alliance is also far from being uncontested as long as the destructive approach of the Hungarian foreign policy toward the Ukraine and Russia embarrasses Warsaw and results in a growing distance between the two illiberal EU Member States.
These conflicts between the Hungarian government and its ideological allies demonstrate that Orbán’s dream stands on unsteady ground. The recognition of his pioneering role is not going to provide him with more leverage or leadership opportunities in the narrower Central European region or in the European Union.
So far, his emblematic initiatives were limited to the weakening of cooperation structures and the re-creation of the interest- and conflict-based realist political tradition within the EU. It is precisely these moves which will show him as a Prime Minister of a country fundamentally lacking in hard power resources in the future.
Orbán, in cooperation with his political-likeminded thinkers, can spectacularly refuse the long-needed EU asylum policy reform at the next EU summit. Obviously, that will clearly demonstrate the destructive characteristics of national populist cooperation. It will be an important success in domestic politics for all involved players, from Orbán through Kurz to Salvini. But in such a realist environment, small states like Hungary will have fewer and fewer opportunities to exercise their will.
True leverage can only be built up by Orbán toward even smaller players as the case of the media acquisitions by Hungarian cronies in Slovenia and the financial support for the Slovenian nationalist politicians, like Janez Jansa, clearly demonstrated, or – like in the case of Macedonia – in a power vacuum like that created in the Western Balkans by the crisis of European enlargement.
However, in comparison to Orbán’s alleged ideological leadership, these power structures enable true leverage as they are built on objective hard power resources. Nevertheless, they also reveal both the vertical hierarchy typical to the cooperation of illiberal and authoritarian players and the primacy of elite groups’ interest over the national interest.
If the information published by the Hungarian daily Népszava is genuine, Orbán’s financial support to Jansa was motivated by the speculations of certain Hungarian cronies on the harbour of Koper and the related rail infrastructure investment, then this case may be closely paralleled to the Paks nuclear power plant extension or the Belgrad-Budapest railway line investment project. It serves the Slovenian national interest as little as the two latter strategic investment projects serve the Hungarian interest.
The loud, populist champions of national sovereignty and national interest apparently do the same in Slovenia and Hungary and probably also elsewhere on the globe. They organize their countries in hierarchized, international dependency networks of authoritarian and illiberal players to maximize their domestic power resources allowing them an, as far as possible, unconstrained exercise of power at home.
Daniel Hegedüs is a visiting fellow in GMF’s RethinkCEE initiative and visiting lecturer at the Humboldt University Berlin.