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Mike Pompeo's warning for Hungary spells the trouble to come

State Secretary Mike Pompeo was in Hungary on Monday to strengthen ties with the NATO member and the American alliance. But his visit highlights a clear difficulty for the US: to drive back unemocratic allies while counteracting transitions from Russia and China. It's a good line to go. Too much pressure on reforms and undemocratic leaders will look elsewhere for support, too little and a country can lose its democracy for good.

These tensions were on display during Pompeo's press conference with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto. Pompeo warned against risking increasing relations between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin. "We must not let Putin drive wedges between friends in NATO." He later warned: "Russia is not the only power to erode freedom in this region" and added that he had already discussed with Szijjarto "the dangers of allowing China to get a bridgehead in Hungary."

But foreign influence is not the only American concern in Hungary. Under Orban, the central European country once held as a clear example of post-Soviet democratic success, has entered a wild authoritarian state. The Fidesz Party, under Orban's leadership, has rewritten electoral laws, dismissed the courts of their independence, made independent media for state propaganda, and forced an American accredited university to move to Vienna.

As an ally and NATO member, the United States tried to keep Hungary close and at the same time push for reform. During his visit, Pompeo met with opposition leaders and noted during the press conference "I also met with Hungarian civil society leaders to talk about the importance of protecting and strengthening democratic institutions across the West."

But these statements and the symbolic significance for the meeting with opposition leaders are somewhat overshadowed by other efforts by Washington to increase relations with Orban.

For example, even Pompeo's talk about freedom, the United States has cut money into a government department program that would have funded independent journalism in Hungary. Likewise, American Ambassador David Cornstein has tried to play well with Orban and refused to figure out the failures in the country. Despite the attempts to drive the government to reduce its hassle on society, Orban shows some signs of giving the ground.

Worse, Hungary does not seem quite ready to make a choice between the United States and its powerful potential backers in Moscow and Beijing. At the press conference, Szijjarto made the government's position clear: "In the case of cooperation with Russia or cooperation with the People's Republic of China, we do not compromise that we are a reliable partner to the United States and NATO." [1

9659002] Although Hungary is the public eye as a result of Pompeo's journey, the country is not unique in presenting a foreign policy challenge to the United States over the balance between applying pressure for freedom and not completely pushing allies away.

For example, in Myanmar, the United States failed to take a stronger line against ethnic cleansing carried out against the Rohingya Muslims for fear of losing influence in the country all the way to Beijing.

Since Russia and China offer alternatives to the United States, Washington loses its ability to hold Allies accountable. Why should an authoritarian leader hand over power to the American call when another power is too happy to back up his regime?

How Pompeo and President Trump responded that the central issue will determine the path of US foreign relations over the coming years, and likely the division of new alliances into an increasingly multipolar world.

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