This is the second part of our article reviewing John J. Mearsheimer’s lecture delivered at the National University of Public Service on 8 November.
Hungary in a Multipolar World
Reflecting on Hungary’s position in today’s multipolar world, Professor Mearsheimer remarked that as Hungary is a European country, the US-China competition is of lesser relevance to it, as opposed to the war in Ukraine. Hungary is disadvantaged because it is a small country caught between two great powers. The question that arises is how Hungary can manage its relations in a situation like this. Mearsheimer opined that the basic objective of Hungary is to be able to avoid having to choose sides in the conflict in any meaningful way—militarily, economically, or ideologically.
The professor explained that in military terms, NATO and the alliance with the US greatly matters to Hungary. While the US is not a threat, Russia is and will always be, because it is practically a neighbouring country. Thus, Hungary is invested in the NATO and US alliance. at the same time, the country also has a deep interest, for security reasons, in not provoking Russia. Nevertheless, the professor warned, Hungary could end up being dragged into the war if it is not careful. The potential for escalation is not trivial, he stressed, which is why Hungary has opposed the war since the beginning. The country has no interest in angering Russia; however, it also does not want to antagonize the Americans. They are trying to continue sitting on the fence, keeping good relations with both the US and Russia.
As far as the economy is concerned, Mearsheimer said that there is no question that Hungary benefits from its EU membership, while being largely dependent on Russia for energy. On the other hand, as the country is located in the very middle of Europe, whenever Russia and Western Europe make extensive deals, Hungary benefits from them as most energy supplies are routed through the country. However, currently there is hardly any trade, and this is not in Hungary’s interest. As the flow of oil and gas has practically stopped, adjusting to the cut-off will create problems.
Hungary has done a good job in managing its relations with both the West and Russia
With regard to ideology, Hungary has mixed feelings about ‘which side is the good side’, but as part of its defence, up to this point the country has done a good job in managing its relations with both the West and Russia, the expert said.
Professor Mearsheimer stressed that moving forward, the greatest threat is escalation. If the West is successful, and they manage to push the Russians back, Russia will escalate, with a good chance of resorting to nuclear weapons. There is also a reasonable chance that NATO gets involved, since America is deeply committed to Ukraine. So deeply, in fact, that if Russia were to win the war, it would be ‘a great temptation’ for America to enter the war. Russia is therefore facing an existential threat because they are not only threatened by Ukraine becoming a member of NATO, but also by the US being bent on defeating them. If they US gets involved in the war, they will be right on the border of Russia. There is also a good chance of a stalemate, which would again cause further problems for both the EU and Hungary. The economic cost of the war is already immense, causing economic and political turmoil and affecting institutions like NATO and the EU, leading to cracks in the alliances, the professor underscored.
Looking at the bigger picture, the conflict between China and the United States also ultimately matters to Hungary. The reason is the American economic policy towards China. The military dimension of the conflict is not of great importance for Hungary, but the economic dimension definitely is. America does not want Hungary to have significant economic relations with the Chinese, because the ultimate goal is to roll back the Chinese economy. However, EU countries will have an interest in maintaining extensive economic relations with China, since the previously beneficial economic relations with Russia are coming to an end and they are looking for an alternative trading partner—and that partner is most likely going to be China, which is bound to enrage the United States. The professor added that the bottom line is that Europe at the moment is living in dangerous times. Great conflicts never looked so explosive during the Cold War, not even during the Cuban missile crisis. So far Hungary has done a great job navigating the waters, but it will be a difficult task for the government to keep that up in the future, Professor Mearsheimer concluded.