The U.S.-Hungary Relationship: Remarks by Ambassador David B. Cornstein to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament
December 13, 2018
– As prepared –
Chairman Nemeth, Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, distinguished guests:
Thank you for asking me to speak to you today. It is an honor to continue the tradition of U.S. Ambassadors speaking before this esteemed group. When I first visited Hungary in 2013 (which by the way is also when I first met Victor Orban) I, like everyone else who visits Budapest, was struck by the beauty of this building. Never did I imagine that five years later, I would be speaking in that same gorgeous building as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary. A lot can change in five years!
There’s one thing though, that hasn’t changed over the years. That’s the strength of the U.S. – Hungary relationship. We share a deep bond between our two countries. Like any long-term relationship, we’ve had our ups and downs, but also like in any other healthy relationship, we’ve overcome those differences and emerged stronger and closer through honest and respectful dialogue. I think that’s the key to any good relationship. Communication between friends needs to reflect the strength of the relationship. It should be open, frequent, and respectful. And that’s what we have aimed for over the past year. I’m proud that we have elevated the dialogue between our two countries. Only one hour after I was sworn in as Ambassador to Hungary, Foreign Minister Szijjarto met with Secretary of State Pompeo in Washington. At my suggestion, my friend President Trump called Prime Minister Orban to congratulate him on the elections. Most recently, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry visited Budapest where he met with me, Prime Minister Orban, and Minister Szijjarto, which marked the first cabinet-level visit from the United States since 2011. This is the type of communication we should have between our two countries.
Over my many years as a businessman, philanthropist, and public servant, I’ve been lucky to have many close and productive relationships. I can’t think of a single one in which we didn’t occasionally have differing views. When I thought my friends were making a mistake, it was my duty to say “Hey….I don’t think you’re making a good decision here.” That’s what friends do. They look out for each other.
Under my leadership, the U.S. Embassy is doing the same thing. For example, we made no secret of the fact that we thought CEU’s departure was bad for Hungary. Resolving this dispute was one of my top U.S. priorities and was part of my daily discussions with Hungarian government counterparts at all levels. I am truly saddened to see CEU leave. We also made it clear that extraditing Russian weapons traffickers back to Russia instead of the United States was not healthy for our law enforcement cooperation or global security. We disagreed with these decisions, and said so. They will not make our job of increasing U.S.-Hungarian engagement easier; they will make it much harder.
I believe now more than ever, in the face of emerging threats, we need to ensure that our alliances, our friendships, are strong.
That’s why I asked to be Ambassador to Hungary. I was excited to see renewed engagement between our governments. Our countries have a deep history together. We are allies. We have many shared interests, and we want to achieve them together, and make the relationship stronger for the benefit of both of our countries. But we can’t do that without diplomacy – and trust.
Two years ago, my predecessor addressed this committee and talked about the durability and flexibility of our NATO alliance. Now, two years later, Russia is trying to test the resilience of the most successful alliance in the history of the world. Now more than ever, Russia is testing West. China, too, is operating aggressively in Central Europe. These are challenges that our alliance can meet, but only if we are strong, prioritize alliances, and maintain unity.
One of the most importance challenges we face is in Ukraine. Russia wants to undermine Ukraine’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. With Russia’s most recent unprovoked attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea, the conflict has escalated tremendously. Russia’s hostile intentions are obvious. The United States has made it clear that our support for Ukraine is unbending. We are committed to the success of a stable, prosperous, democratic, and free Ukraine. We support Ukraine as it counters Russian aggression and adopts reforms to increase prosperity, security, and rule of law. It is vital that NATO support Ukraine in its Western aspirations. This is especially important for Hungary, given your geography.
Ukraine is a country at war. Since 2014, more than 10,000 Ukrainians have died as a result of Russian aggression. More than 1.6 million people have fled their homes. This war is happening in a country that borders Hungary, right on NATO’s doorstep. Now is not the time for NATO to stop cooperating with Ukraine. NATO is not an organization designed to mediate disputes about ethnic minorities, languages, or schools. Bringing these matters into NATO weakens it; weakens Hungarian security.
We recognize and respect Hungary’s very important concerns about Ukraine’s education policy, and raise these matters with the Government of Ukraine. We want both sides to come to a resolution soon. The United States is working to keep the dialogue open between Hungary and Ukraine, so that these two countries can work through their differences. We feel strongly, however, that as NATO allies the best way to promote reforms in Ukraine is by talking to Ukraine, not by blocking Ukrainian engagement with NATO. Ukraine – NATO engagement will help all Ukrainian citizens, including ethnic Hungarians. We need to keep the big picture in mind. Putin is not interested in national sovereignty. His vision is neoimperial. If Ukraine fails, Hungary will be on the front line of Russian aggression.
Speaking of our common shared security, I want to take a moment to discuss our defense relationship. Cooperation between our Department of Defense and the Hungarian Defense Forces has, for years, been a highlight of our bilateral relationship. I’m happy to report that this relationship is as strong as ever.
Our soldiers deploy together, train together, and fight together. In fact, Hungary hosted more than 6,000 U.S. troops last year as part of the Saber Guardian exercises, and since 1992, the United States has provided approximately $500 million dollars to Hungary in security assistance. We welcome Hungary’s commitment to increasing defense spending to two percent of GDP by 2024.
As Hungary implements its ambitious defense modernization plans, the United States stands ready to assist the Hungarian Defense Forces with the modernization of its equipment. Not only are our defense products the best and most reliable in the world, but you also will be more closely integrating Hungary with a steadfast and dependable ally, with the assurance that your modernized armed forces will be equipped with fully NATO-interoperable equipment.
Our defense relationship is the envy of many nations, and now we are in the process of formalizing this close relationship with the negotiation of a new Defense Cooperation Agreement. This agreement will bring us into the 21st century, and prepare us for new security challenges that we face together as Allies. The agreement underscores our desire to work together to strengthen NATO and increase stability in Europe. The NATO alliance is only as strong as the relationships between individual members. As we continue to strengthen our bilateral security cooperation, we also strengthen the overall Alliance. We hope to conclude negotiations soon and continue our progress towards achieving our key shared security objectives. This agreement will make Hungary more secure.
While we are on the subject of security, I would like to talk about energy. Why? Because energy security IS security. There’s no point spending billions of dollars on a military to defend your people if one country can flip a dial and turn off the heat to those people in the middle of winter. Being overly dependent on any one source of energy is dangerous. That is doubly true when that source is Russia, which has shown a willingness in the past to turn off the pipes to exert its influence. At a time when NATO is once again finding itself toe to toe with Russia, our allies need to find ways to diversify their energy sources. We know this won’t happen overnight, but even small steps can make a big difference.
Hungary has options for energy security that are growing in viability. The United States stands ready to assist in bringing these to fruition. The Krk Island liquefied natural gas facility in Croatia is an especially important example. This project will give Croatia and Hungary access to LNG from all over the world, including the United States. It’s time to push this project over the finish line.
Another project that will help Hungary diversify its energy sources is the BRUA pipeline that will bring gas from the Black Sea through Romania and into Hungary. Developing a new, massive source of natural gas off the Black Sea coast of Romania—an EU country and NATO ally—would be a game-changer in reducing this region’s dependence on Russia. I’m ready to work however I can to help Hungary overcome whatever political, legal, or regulatory hurdles might stand in the way of this important project.
As these deals gets closer to completion, I’m sure Hungary will face pressure from those who want to maintain the status quo and keep Hungary dependent on Russian gas. We’ve seen this happen in other countries where Russia offers much lower prices, basically “sweetheart deals,” to keep countries dependent on their gas. Shopping around for a good price makes sense, but remember to factor in the total real cost. When you are dependent on Russian gas, you aren’t just paying with dollars per BCM. There are also costs for your independence and your security as well.
I urge Hungary not to be distracted from the goal of diversification of energy sources. Russia sees the energy sector as a tool of its foreign policy, and is using pipeline projects including Nord Stream II and a multi-line Turkish Stream to try to increase its influence in Europe, and to undermine Ukraine’s security and stability. We strongly oppose these projects, and we urge Hungary to join us in rejecting them. No country can be secure in its energy supply when all its imports come from a single source, and we support Hungary in its efforts to reduce its dependence on Russia in the gas, oil, and nuclear sectors.
Trade and Investment
The United States and Hungary enjoy a more than $5.6 billion bilateral trade relationship. American companies have invested more than $9 billion in Hungary and employ more than 100,000 Hungarians. Hungarian companies also continue to seek investment opportunities in the United States. These are some impressive statistics, but as a lifelong businessman, I did not become successful by accepting “good enough.” That’s why I am making strengthening our trade and investment relationship one of my top priorities during my time here.
From the day I arrived, I have been in close contact with the business community – not just U.S. companies but Hungarian firms as well – to learn more about what the Embassy can do to promote bilateral trade and investment. What I have learned is that U.S. companies that operate here in Hungary find an incredibly supportive government and a strong and willing workforce. When Hungarian companies invest in the United States, they find access to an enormous consumer market and an innovation economy that is second to none. In short, there are great opportunities for U.S. companies here in Hungary and the United States is full of opportunities for Hungarian companies as well.
In the coming months, I will continue to work with the U.S. and Hungarian business communities, and both our governments, to ensure that we are taking advantage of these opportunities to strengthen both our economies.
As I mentioned previously, one of the first and primary goals of my tenure here as Ambassador has been to elevate the dialogue between the United States and Hungary and to ensure that the United States government engages with Hungary in a manner befitting a friend and ally. I’m happy to report that we have delivered on that promise. Now it’s time for some reciprocity. I’m hoping in the coming months to see significant progress on the issues I have raised here today: NATO unity toward Ukraine, energy security, and defense cooperation. All three of these issues are priority concerns for the United States. All three of these issues reflect shared strategic interests.
To my Hungarian friends, both in this room and across the country, I want to thank all of you for the warm welcome I have received over the last six months, and for the productive work we have started together. You have made Sheila and me feel very much at home. I’m looking forward to years of fruitful cooperation.
Chairman Nemeth and members of the committee, thank you once more for inviting me to be here today. I’m very much looking forward to answering your questions and continuing our tradition of open, respectful, and honest dialogue between our two great countries.