Speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs

4 December 2023, Budapest

Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen. Honourable Directors, Ladies and Gentlemen, Professor András Balogh,

It is a pleasure to see you again. It brings back memories of the good old days.

It is not easy to provide a concluding note to a conference that one has not attended. Perhaps it is best to wish you all a happy birthday! However, in two short minutes here I have been able to see that work is being combined with celebration. This is perhaps right, and it is certainly necessary.

Perhaps I should start by answering this question: What has this got to do with me? What am I doing here at the 50th anniversary conference of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs? If I want to answer this question very simply, briefly and clearly in the American style of your president, it is that I am here because from now on the setup is that you are all working directly for the Prime Minister. In future the Institute of International Affairs will support my work through the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office and the Political Director – a position that no one has yet managed to precisely define. The work of the Political Director is about as nebulous as the world of foreign affairs is nebulous – and so they are well suited to each other. And from this challengingly imprecise area I hope we will be able to obtain background knowledge that will usefully inform government decisions. I do not think that the current change in classification will alter the tasks, but this change will certainly mean that the same tasks will have to be done differently.

In reality, the fact that the Institute of International Affairs will be working directly for the Prime Minister’s Office and the Prime Minister is not a new situation; it is in fact the reinstitution of an older order. When at times in its long history Hungary has been able to pursue a sovereign and independent foreign policy, it has always been a foreign policy centred on the Prime Minister. The guidelines of foreign policy strategy used to be formulated by the Prime Minister and his staff, and implemented by the Foreign Ministry. If you look at the greatest of them – Tisza, Bethlen, or Teleki – and look at how they worked, you will see that the current situation is a return to that earlier tradition. Returning to tradition is usually a sensible reflex; because tradition – especially in a country with a history as long as that of Hungary – is not blown together by the wind, but is where the knowledge of several generations is accumulated. In other words, traditions are not formed by chance. There are countries – and I think Hungary is one such country – which are condemned by history, or the country’s own tendency, to set themselves goals that are more ambitious than their size or economic strength would naturally suggest. We are not the only such country, but there are not that many of them. These countries cannot afford to give up the energy, dynamism and enterprising strength that reside in foreign policy and the creation of foreign relations. In other words, in such countries the reins of foreign policy must be held tightly – which in our constitutional system means that it is good if the Prime Minister holds them. This accords with the Hungarian political conception. But this only works well if there is a team for the preparation of decisions – preferably a large, broad and high-quality team – working alongside the Prime Minister to help in the thinking process. In this area in particular, for me it is true that you can never be clever enough on your own. I chose this as the battle cry of my premiership, albeit at the young age of 35 and far more poetically than now, and it is a guiding principle I have followed ever since. And this is probably most pertinent in foreign policy. It is therefore a natural necessity that the Institute of International Affairs should assist the Prime Minister in his work.

Perhaps there is not much more to be said about this, but there are one or two points that need to be clarified – and I could say that, in my view, it is worth saying a few words about the Hungarian position and the Hungarian interest. This needs to be clarified, because in my experience the worst thing is to suddenly learn in the middle of a project that one or more colleagues are not on board. In order to avoid this, it is worth collectively reviewing what seem to be the most basic theses – which are sometimes clichéd, but nevertheless central.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Of course, I am not new to foreign policy, and I am well aware that foreign relations are the most sophisticated area of politics, in which appearances and formalities count for more than in any other area. This is rightly so, because the issues are often sensitive, and diplomatic protocol was not an accidental invention. But this does not mean that anyone with disconcerting questions, astonishing claims and insights or novel suggestions is necessarily violating the norm. And this is true even when one needs to depart from the path of diplomatic protocol. I propose that we do not succumb to those siren voices trying to lecture us on the subject of well-mannered behaviour in foreign policy. There are countries which, by virtue of their size and power, can be magnanimous, seeking only recognition, personal recognition, and which can afford to be – let’s say – easy-going partners on every issue and to garner some respect by constantly agreeing. The countries which can afford to do this are usually countries with great power status. They have the natural deterrent of size. If you have the military power and the economic power, you can command respect without having to warn your counterparts.

We Hungarians, however, are not a great power; yet we claim our right to an independent foreign policy, and we expect others – those larger than us – to accept this claim. This is a relatively difficult task, because I think that if you were to express it in your language, you would say something like this: our relative dominance is low – it is so low that it is in negative territory. Consequently, a country of our ambition, size and power has no choice but to rely on its own reserves. It must rely on a firm and tough stance, on the instinct not to run away in difficult situations, not to camouflage itself, not to ingratiate itself, but to take on conflict. One can create relative strength from this, and we do. In fact, in international waters our most successful political product is precisely the fact that Hungary – although it is a country of only ten million people, with the GDP it has and an army the size it has – is still able to pursue an independent foreign policy. Although you are the experts and you can certainly grasp the theoretical essence of this better than I can, standing on the ground of practical experience it may be useful for me to tell you what I consider to be the cornerstones of an independent and proactive foreign policy. I have some – in fact three – theses. 

My first thesis is that if a country with no relative advantages wants to have an independent foreign policy, it must take a radical position. This means that the country must have grand visions: aims that are long-term, but both ambitious and concrete. It should have a plan and a strategy for becoming a strong country that is respected by others, who accept its demand for an independent foreign policy. Arguments can be made against this. Typically such arguments are that those who are not strong enough should not aspire for much. This seems a simple enough argument: if you have limited resources, you should set modest targets, because they can still be achieved. The government before us had a witty way of putting it: “Let’s dare to be small!” If we are on friendly terms with everyone, then the generosity of the big guys will enable us to get a little crumb off their table, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. If we act in this way, and there have been such periods in modern Hungarian foreign policy, then we will indeed get a little something; but then we must accept that on the issues that are really important and vital to us others will make the decisions without consulting us. Indeed, we will also have to face up to the fact that, having accustomed our partners to the idea that we will always be well-behaved boys, if a situation should arise in which we have to oppose the will of the big boys, then what we have received in goodwill up to that point will be taken away from us. This is why it is perhaps best to assert that Hungary does not want to be the best pupil to another power, but its own master. This cannot be done with a policy of “Let’s dare to be small”, but instead requires a radical stance – a radical stance that is necessary for success. Because from a tactical point of view, if we are not radical enough, in the course of a dispute there will be nothing left to concede. In other words, radicalism always expands one’s room for manoeuvre. This is the tactical side of things. But there is also a strategic side. Because in Hungarian, in our cultural context, “radical” means something different than in most Western languages. In Hungarian, “radical” means extending to the roots. Radical means taking a position that captures the essence of something.

This is also a cultural-anthropological characteristic of Hungarians. The English traveller John Paget published an alarmingly, intimidatingly thick book, in which he recounted his travels in Hungary in the early 19th century, describing his experiences of the distinctive national characteristics determining what the Hungarians were like at that time. I recommend it to anyone who has not yet waded through it. At one point, this worthy English traveller writes that the Hungarians speak honestly and, he says, eschew all artifice – even when they know full well that they are surrounded by spies. The Hungarians could not care less about them. In modern, 20th century terms, we used to call this a coffee house nation. This bygone traveller hit on a crucial point, because Hungarians do indeed take pleasure in calling a spade a spade. And they are also happy when, having done so, they have grabbed a problem by the collar, and have managed to stuff as much complexity as possible about the matter under discussion into a single sentence. As we might perhaps more easily say in English: “You can’t say anything without saying everything.” In other words: it is obvious that Hungarian radicalism – straightforward, clear, with a way of speaking that seeks to lay bare everything, searching and seeking to grasp the problem at its root – is essentially an intellectual phenomenon. It is not brutality, not physical violence, but a phenomenon of an intellectual nature. To extricate myself from this abstract explanation, I will give you a concrete example, which may illustrate that I am not talking about a theoretical issue. I am sure you have also noticed that we Hungarians are not debating – we have not taken part in a single debate – about the mechanism by which migrants should be distributed – and, once distributed, integrated. For us, the questions of how they should be distributed and how they should be integrated are not substantive. I would say that they are irrelevant, technical, and of no interest in themselves. For a Hungarian, the essential question is whether or not migration is a good thing in general, or at all. Until we have grasped this, until we have clarified this, there is no point in talking about how to distribute them and how to integrate them. The debates in the West never go as far as asking this question: Is migration itself good or bad? But now, for years, they have been concerned only with discussing the principles of distribution, and the details of successful or unsuccessful integration. Now that’s what I call radicalism.

My second thesis is that, despite all the rumours to the contrary, the Hungarian foreign policy practice of framing questions in a straightforward way does not detract from Hungary’s prestige and esteem, but enhances it. The fact that others do not speak in this way and do not communicate their knowledge in this linguistic framework does not mean that they are not concerned about these questions. I do not think that when they are alone at home Italians, Frenchmen or Germans never become incensed, and straightforwardly ask themselves whether there might be some way of resetting everything. I do not think that they never talk about how instead of, say, integrating migrants, we could go back to a time from which – in a way that no one has clarified in hindsight – we have got to where we are, from that situation to which we would wish to return to. And if we had a choice, we would choose the state we were in thirty or forty years ago, rather than the state we are in now. Well, what I want to say to you is that just because others do not choose this radical way of speaking, analysing and expressing themselves, does not mean that they do not care about this or these same essential questions. And this is why they are happy to listen to us. They might not join in, they might not want the rough-and-tumble that comes from representing the Hungarian position; but they are very happy to listen to us, because somewhere, deep down, they are interested in these fundamental questions. And the fact is that we are able not only to state our position straightforwardly, but then seek to defend it, both intellectually and politically – and even fight for it. This is gradually becoming a kind of calling card – in fact it is Hungarian soft power. With the help of this we can then form coalitions with those who cannot say the same things that we can, but whose goals coincide with what we are talking about. And ever more such complicated situations are arising in which it is precisely because of our open and straightforward talk – not in public, of course, but at the negotiating table – that we are seeing ever more combinations and coalition opportunities. If anyone is interested in the concrete manifestation of this, I would like to bring to their attention the diplomatic events of the next two or three weeks.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Here we must also examine the very widespread belief that the radical grasp of essential issues leads not to prestige but to isolation. This idea does not match my experience. I do not want to deal with this at a theoretical level, but standing on the ground of practice I would just like to say that at no time in the past century has Hungarian foreign policy been as active and extensive as it has been in recent years. Just some recent examples: Beijing, the Berlin Chancellery, the Speaker of the Italian Parliament, Switzerland, a UN event in Azerbaijan, the President of the European Council in Budapest, and then on to Argentina and Brussels. And who knows what other mysterious journeys there will be. Intensive Western contacts, and thundering opening to the East and the South. Speed, vigour, trade, investments and connectivity. This – and not isolationism – is what is brought by everything I have talked about so far.

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

So far I have talked about the articulation of our position and the way in which it is represented. I have said a few things about what enhances and strengthens our standing in the world. Now we simply need to clarify the point of view, the guiding principle on the basis of which we will address and articulate the substantive issues. This is the third thesis which guides what I have prepared for today. It is expressed in the simple sentence that “Hungarian foreign policy is based on the national interest.” Obviously you think you know this so well that it has become boring. All the same, I suggest we talk about it a little. Foreign policy is traditionally typologised as either idealistic or realistic. Those who are idealistic try to be midwives in bringing into the world some principle they consider to be important. This is what we call a values-based foreign policy. Realists believe in strength, and more importantly in the balance of power, and they seek to assert their interests with increased power. This is an interest-based foreign policy. I think that you know about my negative opinion of value-based foreign policy. But I would like to add that I am not particularly enthusiastic about interest-based foreign policy either. The reason for this is that what really excites and inspires us Hungarians – and me personally – is a foreign policy based on national interest. This is because I believe it combines the best elements of idealism and realism. Its name also helps us to understand this. Here the word “national” is not a simple modifier, but in this context it is an essential, substantive word; it refers to the idealistic element, because the nation is first and foremost an ideal. And the interest that we pair with the word “national”, to give “the national interest”, is itself realism: the generic word for that which is necessary, useful and practical. And this in turn requires a particular way of thinking, which is rarely discussed in academic circles: it requires that a foreign policy based on national interest should never be dogmatic. Indeed, if we understand what it means, it cannot become dogmatic. Because the most important task of a foreign policy based on national interest is to recognise, define and grasp what the national interest is in every situation and to act on that basis – and, as you know, in foreign policy every situation is always changing. I am convinced that a foreign policy based on the national interest has intellectual content – that it also contains principles and values, but that it forces those who embrace the concept to be constantly and flexibly adaptive. This means that we Hungarians, for example, are concerned with the balance of power, but we do not want to assert our interests by sheer added power. We could also say that we are forging a virtue out of necessity; we are not a great power that can rely on strength alone. We believe in an extensive network of relationships open in all directions, an arsenal of soft power tools used wisely. This is the true strength of Hungarian foreign policy.

Well, in the future this is the intellectual task in which I will be counting most on your help – you here at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs. I will be counting on you helping decision-makers to find their way among the world’s major issues and in the national interest, to propose this constant adaptation on decision-makers, and to force them into it. As Hungary’s foreign relations become more diversified, as we are present in ever more regions of the world, as our attention becomes increasingly departmentalised, we have an increasing need for the most qualified experts in thinking on Hungarian foreign policy to do this work of interpretation, of defining the national interest, and of preparing decisions. And the Hungarian Foreign Ministry and the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office of the day can only implement this foreign policy if it has qualitatively outstanding intellectual support: if there is deep analytical work going on behind the Foreign Ministry and behind those who make foreign policy, and if we have at our disposal such a special operations force. And I see the Hungarian Institute for International Affairs as such a special operations force for Hungarian foreign policy strategy. In this expression of our reliance on your work I am also wishing you a happy birthday. Hungary is counting on you. We ask you to make your contribution, so that Hungary can continue to punch above its weight in the international arena.

Happy birthday, and every success in your work!