Hungarian Conservative

Who Is Samantha Power and What Was She Doing in Budapest?

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It is difficult not to interpret the visit of Samantha Power, the current head of USAID, to Budapest last Thursday and Friday as an American telling-off.

The following is a translation of an article by Levente László Greczula, originally published on on 12 February 2023.

The head of USAID has already seen a lot as an adviser to the Obama administration, and now she did not merely come to the Hungarian capital just to try the Hungarian lángos. A portrait of Samantha Power by Mandiner.

In the last few weeks, the Biden administration has been trying to put pressure on the Hungarian government to an extent unseen in a long time.

The story began when US Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman told Politico at the end of January that Hungarian politicians were playing into Vladimir Putin’s hands by not supporting the sanctions policy against Russia and refusing to send weapons to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Ukrainian regime. Pressman said that he agrees with the Hungarian government that peace is needed, but this should be discussed with the Russians rather than trying to persuade the Ukrainians to surrender.

Pressure from Washington

The Ambassador’s statements caused a great stir in Hungary. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó reacted to Pressman’s statements, as could be expected, in his usual style, saying that it does not matter what the chief of mission thinks about the internal political processes in Hungary because it is not his task to judge them. Since then, Pressman and Szijjártó have already met, and this issue was certainly discussed during the meeting, too.

The fact that Washington is not satisfied with the course of Hungarian politics is beyond dispute.

In the person of Pressman, a career diplomat was appointed for the first time in a long time to be the head of the American Embassy in Budapest—in recent years, his predecessors were mostly political appointees. The icing on the cake is that the US leadership sent an openly homosexual ambassador to Budapest at the very time when the Hungarian government made several laws that the mainstream international press and the political discourse branded as clearly homophobic.

It is also difficult not to interpret the visit of Samantha Power, the current head of USAID, to Budapest last Thursday and Friday as an American telling-off of Hungarians. Power is a truly powerful person (I hope the readers will appreciate my poor attempt at a play on words) in the intellectual hinterland of the Democrats, who previously reached high level positions under the Obama administration—and she also knows Pressman well.

Samantha Power: from Sarajevo to USAID

Power was born in London in 1970. She reported from Sarajevo during the Yugoslav War and then earned degrees from Yale and Harvard. In the middle of the 2000s, she became close to the then still Senator Barack Obama, who later appointed her as a foreign policy adviser. However, this did not last long after

Power stated in 2008 that she believed Hillary Clinton was a monster

—which definitely suggests that Samantha Power has a particularly good situational awareness—, which is why Obama was forced to let her go. But her state of disgrace did not last long, since after the 2008 electoral victory, Power could return and join Obama’s State Department, where she quickly became a key figure.

Samantha Power was one of Obama’s closest associates on matters related to the Arab Spring. Power has received a lot of criticism for supporting military intervention in, for example, Syria or Libya. In 2013, she was appointed US Ambassador to the United Nations (where she had a direct working relationship with Pressman), a position she held until 2017. During the lean years of the Trump era, Power wrote a book about her time in the Obama administration, in which she tried to explain her militant position regarding the Arab Spring. Fortunately for her, the Democrats did not forget about her: Joe Biden invited her to head the American humanitarian aid agency USAID in 2021, where she has been active ever since. Power arrived in Budapest in this very position last Thursday.

USAID as a Tool of American Empire Building

Of course, USAID is not ‘just’ an aid agency—on the contrary. Among the declared goals of the organisation established in 1961, in addition to disaster response and the advancement of the most underdeveloped and beleaguered regions of the world, we also find the building of bilateral relations of the United States among its tasks. One does not need a particularly sharp eye to see that

besides carrying out noble humanitarian tasks, USAID is also an indirect instrument of power of the current American government.

US political scientist Joseph S. Nye may have had something like this in mind when he coined the term ‘soft power’ in the late 1980s, a term so overused by now by those who have not even read Nye’s original essay that it might be best to avoid using it today.

Despite the fact that it carries out fundamentally important activities, USAID’s operation has received considerable criticism over the years. Since its establishment, the agency has cooperated closely with the CIA, which, from the 1960s onwards, made many South American and Middle Eastern governments to resent the organisation. Several countries have even banned USAID from their territories, saying that they have no need for American empire building under the guise of providing aid and spreading democracy.

USAID also operated in Hungary after the regime change, but their programme ended in 1999 in light of the process and progress of the democratic transition in the country.

Last December, the agency announced that it would launch a new ‘Central Europe Programme’ after two decades,

which, in addition to Hungary, also includes the other three Visegrád countries, as well as Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovenia. The aim of the programme is, among other things, to strengthen civil society, increase the competitiveness and sustainability of ‘independent’ media, and further expand the power-checking function of various civil organisations—so the usual agenda is pretty much on the menu.

In other words, Samantha Power came to see if Hungary ‘accepts her rule indeed’: in the company of her old acquaintance, Ambassador Pressman, she met with some representatives of the Hungarian civil sphere and ‘independent’ media, tasted the traditional Hungarian fried bread lángos, and checked how the American empire building is going in Hungary, a process that has already had many small episodes, from the appointment of Pressman to the support of the 2022 parliamentary election campaign of the Hungarian opposition. We are unlikely to find out whether Washington is satisfied with the fieldwork in Hungary. In any event, it is quite predictable that as long as the Hungarian government is unwilling to arm the Ukrainian regime and withdraw the anti-paedophile law, it will have to resist further American pressure, which, according to the dream books, usually does not bode well for a government.

It will hardly be a short-term struggle.

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It is difficult not to interpret the visit of Samantha Power, the current head of USAID, to Budapest last Thursday and Friday as an American telling-off.