Creative Approaches to the Transatlantic Relationship: Five Minutes with Ambassador András Simonyi

Following “Assessing the Transatlantic Relationship,” an event hosted by the Georgetown Collaborative Diplomacy Initiative, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with former Ambassador of Hungary to the United States, András Simonyi, to discuss his time a diplomat in the United States, his experiences with NATO, and the nature of the transatlantic relationship.

GJIA: First, I want to start with your career as an ambassador here in the United States. How did you embrace soft power and public diplomacy in representing Hungary?

AS: Much of it was intuition. It was nothing that I had read or studied; it came automatically. I knew the culture of America, and as I’ve been playing rock music for over 40 years, when I came to the United States, I had my briefcase in one hand and my guitar case in the other. I knew that I could communicate to the American people through rock music, as I did in my appearance on the Colbert Report, which was effective in communicating that Hungarians respect and appreciate the United States. In that way, I practiced public diplomacy by showing that a Hungarian had embraced the public culture of Hungary.

GJIA: What were the most effective approaches for you to understand the American people? How did you convey your country’s culture to Americans?

AS: I grew up with American kids and had a better understanding of America than the average diplomat. I didn’t necessarily study America, but I hung out with Americans as a kid and learned the culture more naturally. I didn’t find Americans strange, nor was I surprised by America, as many diplomats are when they first come here. I also spent ten years at NATO, working with American servicemen and diplomats, which also gave me a strong sense of what America was about and what Americans are like. What really motivated me to work with the United States and NATO was the strong sense that the transatlantic relationship is the most important relationship in the world.

GJIA: What have been some of the greatest accomplishments of the transatlantic relationship in the past decade?

AS: Let’s look at the last 25 years. Without NATO, I can’t see the liberation of Eastern Europe from communism. I can’t see a secure and stable transition from a divided Europe to a united Europe. People also underestimate the tremendous success of reintegrating Eastern Europe into the capitalist system, as seen by integration into NATO and the EU of many of those countries. It made the democratic nations of the world much stronger. But at the same time, we remain blind to many of the threats to our society, such as the negative aspects of globalization and automation, which has affected Europe and the United States alike.

GJIA: Can you address critics of NATO who argue that it is an outdated tool of foreign policy?

AS: NATO is critical because there are many real threats around the world. Russia poses a real threat to democracy. Terrorism is a threat to our societies. It is imperative to have a strong military alliance that can respond with force if necessary and send a strong signal that the transatlantic community can and will defend itself. Europe can’t do it on its own, and America would be much weaker without Europe, so their interests are clearly aligned.

GJIA: What is Hungary’s role in the transatlantic relationship?

AS: I think Hungary in itself is not particularly significant. I think, however, that the central European countries are important, and Hungary can make a contribution as a central European country. There is no country big enough to solve problems on its own and there is no country too small not to be able to make a difference. This has driven our attitude as Hungarians, and that’s how we make a difference.

GJIA: Does the recent election of a populist president, Viktor Orban, in Hungary testify to the notion that Hungary is moving away from the transatlantic relationship?

AS: It’s awkward. I am not a supporter of Mr. Orban. I think he is reversing my goal of turning Hungary into a lasting, full-fledged, solid democracy, as he has reversed many of Hungary’s gains to that end. That said, I don’t think Hungary is turning away from the transatlantic community. In many ways, Orban is a troublemaker in Europe, but he supports the transatlantic relationship and Hungary’s strong ties to America.

GJIA: What is the future of the transatlantic alliance and how can diplomats on both sides of the ocean use both public and soft power diplomacy?

AS: It’s not just about the military and security. It is very important that democracies stick together to solve many of the challenges we face. Democracies are best suited to solve problems, like climate change and disease epidemics, because they are the best at unleashing the creative power of mankind. As far as the future of soft power is concerned, we shouldn’t be carried away by technology, because at the end of the day technology is just a tool. The real question is how do we reinvent ourselves? How do we, as diplomats, reinvent our message to connect directly to people? At the end of the day, diplomacy is all about the people. Diplomacy today is drastically different from when I practiced it 15 years ago. Now, you have Facebook, Twitter, etc. But 15 years from now, it will be totally different from today, with completely different tools of communication. But again, in the end, diplomacy is all about the people who conduct it. Recognizing that is the key to success in diplomacy.

Ambassador Andras Simonyi is the managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. He is the former Hungarian ambassador to the United States between 2002 and 2007 and former ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.