The last months have been bad for Europe and indeed for Hungary. Europe, the superpower has shown its weakness which is a result of the lack of leadership, complacency, divisions and the lack of vision for its place and role in the world. It is now paying a price for not understanding that soft-power alone will not make it a global power and inaction, the unwillingness to take its security, its own back yard seriously comes at a cost. It has neglected its neighborhood. It did not prepare the fire brigade for the arson and it is surprised that the fire engine is not running, there is little water in the hose, only the shiny brass bell works properly.
In the middle of all this comes along Viktor Orban, Hungary's Prime Minister, the political gambler who plays with huge stakes. His kind of gamblers sometimes walk away naked, and sometimes with large fortunes. No doubt the stakes have been high, as he embarked on building an ugly fence around Hungary to keep out the messy flood of refugees, and acted harsh in the process. He picked a fight with most of Europe. His motive was perhaps sinister, motivated primarily by his falling popularity, the rebellion in his party. But he gambled on the opportunity and ran with it. His popularity at home is now soaring, and more and more Europeans are asking if he was perhaps right?!
Have no doubt, his trail is laced with destruction, he has also left his country with a terrible image world wide. He further damaged the weak European unity. He lacked the finesse to combine hard power with soft power, for it is the prior that he really understands. But he also understood that the disorderly way Europe has been tackling the crisis plays in his hand. He takes no prisoners, he left the whole of Europe gasping for air. His response smacks of xenophobia, of short-sightedness, of the illiberal attitude à la Vladimir Putin. He has in the past few years seriously damaged the nascent Hungarian democracy (the opportunity handed to him by his silly predecessor). He has allowed the emergence of a parochial kleptocracy. He has halted the modernization of the country. He has created a model, which most unfortunately, is contagious and leads further and further down a dead end street.
One thing cannot be denied however. He is an exceptionally talented leader, a fighter, a man of courage. No one can dispute that he has understood the fears of many Hungarians and Europeans more than almost any politician on the continent, and acted swiftly and decisively to exploit it. He smells weakness, and just like his role model, the Russian leader, he knows when he is dealing with weaklings. Ones who talk loud but do not carry a big stick.
Orban did not bother to listen to the advice of people who are not yes men, like his inexperienced foreign minister, but people for whom country comes first without ulterior motives. They would have told him that this crisis is the opportunity for Hungary and thus him to shine. To grab the initiative to place Hungary front and center of Europe as both the bold defender of Europe's borders and a country which can relate to the plight of people in a state of distress. In a positive way. Protecting Europe's borders, he should have been welcoming to refugees while pushing back illegals, economic migrants, soldiers of fortune. He should have cracked down on organized crime who were the first to smell the business opportunity. He should have built an alliance with his opposition, humanitarian organizations, offer help in any way he could. He chose not to.
But he is lucky. He can make a u-turn, seize the moment to help build consensus at home and abroad. He still has an opportunity to mend fences (no pun intended), rebuild relationships in Europe. He should stop fighting and step out to be a true European leader. He can show the world that he acted alone and the way he did because of the lack of a coherent European action plan. He should reconsider his position not to take in any refugees. He can also reach out to Hungarian society as a whole, not just his own or the xenophobic extreme right. He should use his high ratings (which could prove to be temporary) to make peace with society across the board. Let go of the idea of full control. Start rebuilding the Hungarian economy, make it less dependent on Russian gas and immoral German companies.He should be encouraged to do so.
This is a great moment for him to admit mistakes and return to the ideals of freedom, democracy and modernization he embraced as a young man. Values he so much defended to me in 1992 as we were driving on a highway in Holland, on the way to a meeting with a bunch of liberals.
He could do all this. But I am aware that in the end we might have to conclude what my good friend, former congressman Tom Lantos, used to say upon meeting mediocre politicians: Great talent, but he is perhaps not as smart as we thought.