Hillary Clinton and Hungarian Authoritarianism

I have a particular fondness for journalistic first-person accounts of important moments in history, so I was pretty excited to get the chance to be a part of bringing you an account by our former ambassador to Hungary, Eleni Kounalakis, who has authored a feature in the new issue of the Washington Monthly about her experiences on the job. It was during her tenure in Budapest that Viktor Orbán’s center-right Fidesz Party was swept into parliament with a large working majority and set about rewriting the constitution, curtailing the free media, and undermining the independence of the judiciary.

Ambassador Kounalakis has an impressive resumé, but she wasn’t a career diplomat. She is a major land developer in California, a frequent delegate to the Democratic National Convention, and a significant party donor. By her own admission, she thought the biggest problem she’d be tackling in Hungary would be navigating the red tape to move the embassy’s Marine barracks closer to the chancery.

Instead, she immediately found herself embroiled in a fight against a major shift away from democracy and towards authoritarianism. In her piece, she details how she and her colleagues in the embassy worked to moderate the changes that were going on, and how they enlisted the help of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

At one point, Kounalakis considered resigning if Hillary Clinton went ahead with plans to give a prepared rebuke of the constitutional reforms in the Hungarian parliament without first giving Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the courtesy of a private meeting. This became unnecessary, however, when Clinton listened to her concerns, had her staff rewrite a speech that had already been thoroughly vetted, and followed Kounalakis’s advice to give Orbán an opportunity to explain himself before blasting him in the press or before parliament.

It’s compelling writing, and it’s become quite relevant now that Clinton is the presumed Democratic nominee for president. A frequent criticism of Clinton is that it’s hard to list her accomplishments as Secretary of State, but here is a good example of how she used her influence to do something worthwhile and significant.

The constitutional reforms went ahead in January 2012, as planned, but when a letter Clinton had written Orbán leaked, it led to greater engagement by European Union powers and the eventual moderation of some of the most troublesome new laws. This preserved vital judicial independence and strengthened free speech and freedom of religion in Hungary.

Kounalakis played an important role in preventing the worst, and her reporting is interesting both for its historical importance and for what it can tell us about Hillary Clinton’s management style. At a critical juncture, Clinton was willing to junk the preparations that had been made in DC and follow the recommendations of her ambassador on the ground who understood the sensitivities of the Hungarians better because she’d been living with them. A lot of executives wouldn’t listen so well or be as flexible.

You should definitely read the whole thing.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.