A shoe has dropped in Europe. A small shoe, but one with a loud bang on a marble floor. The government of pro-Russian populist Viktor Orban in Hungary has introduced legislation that threatens to end the academic freedom of Central European University in Budapest, a private American-Hungarian graduate institution founded in 1991 by the Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros. The University’s president, Michael Ignatieff, and his network of allies at Oxford and elsewhere in the liberal humanist elite world, will present this potentially tragic affair as a threat to the Western ideal itself. And they are not exaggerating. I would go further, though. Orban’s attempt to place his neo-authoritarian paws on the school is, in a larger sense, a geopolitical event.
Yes, Orban has been expanding government control for years already in many directions: in the media, in the courts, and so forth. But there is a new geopolitical context afoot. The United States has elected a President, Donald Trump, with an avowed transactional approach to Russian relations, shorn of the historical and moral obligations that America has traditionally felt towards Europe since World War II. Trump’s right-hand man in the White House, Steve Bannon, has even championed the cause of anti-European populists in Western Europe of the Orban-Putin mold. Elements of the new Administration are assumed to have had untoward and perhaps compromising ties with the Kremlin. Moreover, Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has no experience in public policy whatsoever and his only moral obligations in the past have been to shareholders at Exxon. Orban knows all this. He knows, too, that Soros, a philanthropist to Democratic Party causes with few equals, is no friend of Trump, to put it mildly. In sum, this is a power grab that Orban must think he can easily get away with.
My point is that context is everything in geopolitics. And the context now is very corrosive. The most poignant example of the moment is that of Central European University. Merely by his neo-isolationist posturing, without actually doing anything yet, Trump is causing power to subtly shift to the Russian east.
The symbolism could not be more profound. The very phrase, Central Europe, evokes an imagined, multicultural, and intellectually eclectic world where minorities coexisted (albeit barely) before the horrors of war, Nazism, and Communism. Its borders were spiritual, not legal. And Budapest was at its very heart. The establishment of an elite American-type school in Budapest only two years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall was a moral statement, with geopolitical significance—that Western civilizational ideas had triumphed in the Cold War, and that Central Europe itself, however idealized and romanticized the notion might have been, could now fully emerge. Thus, for a Putin ally to undermine this institution would mark a chapter break heralding a return-of-sorts to a sordid past.
The fight to preserve the integrity of Central European University constitutes an inflection point where ethics and geopolitics, rather than being in contradiction, work together. After all, a national security strategy, however hardheaded, requires both a moral and public policy component, or it is nothing. For Tillerson especially, this is an opportunity to finally find his voice. He had an opportunity a few weeks back when hundreds of thousands of Romanians were demonstrating in the heart of Bucharest for the rule of law and European ethical standards. He should have been there with them, if not in person than in loudly pitched verbal spirit. Unless I missed something, he wasn’t. Madeleine Albright or Condoleezza Rice would have made their voices heard.
Make no mistake—I am a realist. But being a realist, I know that the balance of power is shifting away from the United States in the heart of Europe. And Orban’s latest move is a demonstrable sign of it: a sign that should and can be reversed—for our own sakes, as well as for that of Central European University.