Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) and NATO Secretary General Jens Soltenberg
© Janos Kummer/Getty ImagesBUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JUNE 12: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) and NATO Secretary General Jens Soltenberg (L) attend a joint press conference on June 12, 2024 in Budapest, Hungary. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is visiting Hungary to attend a conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban amid reports that the Bucharest Group of Nine (B9) may exclude Hungary from their discussions. The B9, founded in 2015 by former Soviet bloc countries now in NATO and the EU, has expressed increasing concern over Hungary's consistent vetoes on supporting Ukraine.
NATO is approaching a watershed moment. It is worth remembering that the most successful military alliance in world history started as a peace project, and its future success depends on its ability to maintain peace. But today, instead of peace, the agenda is the pursuit of war; instead of defense it is offense. All this runs counter to NATO's founding values. Hungary's historical experience is that such transformations never lead in a good direction. The task today should be to preserve the alliance as a peace project.

On those occasions when we need to make statements about NATO, we Hungarians are in a special position. Our accession to NATO was the first time in several centuries that Hungary had voluntarily joined a military alliance. The significance of our membership only becomes clear in light of Hungary's history.

The history of 20th-century Hungary is also, unfortunately, a history of defeat in wars. Our collective experience is one of wars periodically fought within alliance systems of which we did not originally want to be a part, and which were established with some form of conquest in mind — or at least with some explicitly militaristic goal. However much we sought to stay out of the two world wars, and however vehemently we tried to warn those countries we were forced into alliances with, each occasion brought a defeat that almost erased Hungary from the face of the Earth.

Although the worst did not happen, our losses were still colossal. These wars left Hungary with no control over its future. After 1945 we became an unwilling part of the Soviet bloc, and thus also of the Warsaw Pact: the then Eastern bloc's military alliance. Hungarians protested with every fiber of our being. We did our utmost to bring about the downfall of the Warsaw Pact. In 1956 our revolution drove the first nail into the coffin of communism; and, as that system was finally being overthrown, our then-prime minister was the first leader in the former Eastern bloc to declare (in Moscow!) that the Warsaw Pact must be dissolved. The rest is history. The military alliance that had been imposed on us almost immediately broke up, and just a few days after that famous meeting in Moscow the Hungarian foreign minister was in Brussels, negotiating the commencement of our NATO accession process.

When the Hungarian nation joined NATO it had not been a voluntary member of a military alliance for a long time — perhaps as long as five hundred years. The importance of this circumstance cannot be overemphasised. In addition to our natural desire to free ourselves from Soviet domination and to join the West, a special factor made NATO attractive to us: we were finally joining a military alliance that was committed not to waging war but to keeping the peace, not to offensive expansion but to the defense of ourselves and one another. From a Hungarian perspective we could not have wished for anything better.

We still hold this view, and up until now there has never been a circumstance that has called it into question. Yet it is worth briefly touching on why, 25 years ago, we saw in NATO our guarantee of peace and defense. In the second half of the 20th century Hungary was cut off from its natural civilizational environment — the West — and, more immediately, from the whole of Europe. We would do well to recall the words of U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who, upon the founding of the alliance, summed up its essence in the following words:
In this pact, we hope to create a shield against aggression and the fear of aggression — a bulwark which will permit us to get on with the real business of government and society, the business of achieving a fuller and happier life for all our citizens.
President Truman's words coincided with the aspirations of Hungarian history: peace. Reading them today, it is clear that the concept underpinning NATO was emphatically that of a military alliance for defense. Its primary task was to create a geopolitical environment in which the members of the alliance would mutually defend one another. This is not only a security guarantee, but also a competitive advantage. Mutual guarantees enable each member country to direct its resources to economic development rather than to warding off military threats. But there was another important element in President Truman's speech: NATO provides not only defense and deterrence, but also reassures external actors.

Looking back 25 years, I can confidently say that what finally convinced Hungarians to join — alongside a general desire for integration as part of the West — was NATO's promise of peace. Twenty-five years ago, on September 16, 1999, as prime minister I was present when the Hungarian flag was raised at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Comment: Notably, just prior to Hungary's ascension, from 24 March - 10 June 1999, NATO: 'launched round-the-clock aerial attacks against Yugoslavia for 78 days, dropping 20,000 tons of bombs and killing thousands of women, children, and men.': The Weight of Chains: US/NATO Destruction of Yugoslavia (Documentary)

This is how I summed up what joining the world's largest military alliance meant for us: "For Hungary, joining NATO also means peace. Well, to fight a war — even successfully — all you need are enemies; but to create lasting peace in this corner of the world is impossible without allies." Ever since then I have been closely following the development of the alliance's vision for the future, and the manner in which Hungary has been fulfilling the commitments it made when it joined. I have done so not only out of a general sense of political responsibility for Hungary, but also as a result of my personal memories and direct involvement.

A sense of honor and a clear understanding of its self-interest dictate that when a country voluntarily joins a military alliance, its minimum obligation is to fulfill its commitments to that alliance. This is not least because the original purpose of NATO — to guarantee peace — demands strength, determination, and experience. And Hungary has done its utmost to increase its strength, demonstrate its determination, and gain experience in the maintenance of peace. Thus, together with our NATO allies, we participated in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, where Hungary was the first from the most recent intake of member countries to assume the national role of leader of a provincial reconstruction team. We have been a member of KFOR, the Kosovo peacekeeping mission, since day one in 1999, and Hungary is the fourth-largest contributor to that mission in terms of forces on the ground. Moreover, Hungary provides air defense for two other NATO allies, Slovakia and Slovenia, and — on a rotational basis — for the Baltic states. We also host the Central European Headquarters Multinational Division Centre, a key element of the military cooperation system forming part of NATO's Eastern Wing.

Hungary is also of the opinion that, in addition to participating in missions, we can only demand solidarity from other NATO member countries if we are able to defend ourselves. This is a fundamental question of sovereignty. In order to rebuild Hungary's defense capabilities, our defense spending in 2023 was already 2 percent of GDP, in accord with the commitments we had made at the NATO summit in Wales the previous year. By July's NATO summit in Washington, in addition to Hungary two-thirds of member countries are expected to have met this requirement. In 2016 Hungary also embarked on a comprehensive force modernization program, and we are spending 48 percent of the defense budget on force development — more than double the NATO requirement. This has made us one of the 10 highest-performing member countries. We are purchasing the most modern equipment for the Hungarian Defence Forces. Our soldiers are already using Leopard tanks, new Airbus helicopters and Lynx and Gidrán armored vehicles, and we have acquired NASAMS air defense system units. Thanks also to the organizational modernization that is taking place in parallel with the acquisitions, the Hungarian Defence Forces have been raised from the combat level to the operational level.

The rebuilding of the Hungarian defense industry is also in progress. The war in Ukraine has shown that European NATO member countries are facing a serious shortfall in military industrial capacity. The development of our defense industry had already started long before the outbreak of the war, as part of Hungary's economic development plans, but it has since become a key factor for NATO's future position. Hungary's defense industry focuses on six priority sectors: the manufacture of combat and other military vehicles, production of munitions and explosives, radio and satellite communications systems, radar systems, small arms and mortar production, and aerospace industry and drone development.

Strengthening the Hungarian armed forces and defense industry benefits not only Hungary, but NATO as a whole. Hungary is an ally that, in addition to being a loyal partner, stands ready to actively cooperate with other members of the alliance to achieve its goals of preserving peace and ensuring predictable development.

Today NATO is by far the most powerful military alliance in the world, both in terms of defense spending and military capabilities. Hungary, as we have seen, is punching above its weight in developing its defence capabilities, participating in missions, and developing its military forces. But when it comes to the future of NATO, we are not in full agreement with the majority of member countries. Today ever more voices within NATO are making the case for the necessity — or even inevitability — of military confrontation with the world's other geopolitical power centers. This perception of inevitable confrontation functions like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more that NATO's leaders believe conflict to be inevitable, the greater will be their role in precipitating it.

Today the self-fulfilling nature of this confrontation prophecy is becoming increasingly apparent, with the news that preparations have begun for a possible NATO operation in Ukraine — and even high-level reports that troops from NATO member countries are already near the Ukrainian front. Happily, though, Hungary has come to an important agreement with NATO acknowledging our essential role in the alliance while exempting us from its direct support efforts in Ukraine, whether military or financial. As a peace-loving nation, we understand NATO as a defensive alliance — which this agreement helps to ensure. Those who argue in favor of confrontation typically base their arguments on the military superiority of NATO and the Western world.

The great historian Arnold Toynbee argued that "Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder." As the strongest military alliance the world has ever known, it is not defeat at the hands of any external enemy that we should fear. An external enemy, if it has any sense, will not dare to launch an attack on any NATO member country. But we should very much fear our own rejection of the values that gave birth to our alliance. The purpose for which NATO was created was to secure peace in the interest of stable economic, political, and cultural development. NATO fulfills its purpose when it wins peace, not war. If it chooses conflict instead of cooperation, and war instead of peace, it will be committing suicide.

Of course it is incumbent on each member country to bring new insights to the strategy room alongside its own worldview and experience; but these worldviews are informed by the different experiences of various countries. In this respect, the uniform experience of the Western countries is one of victory — they have successively won the wars of past centuries. When it comes to the question of war or peace, it is no wonder they are less cautious. But the Hungarian historical experience is that when a military alliance changes from focusing on defense to focusing on offense, from avoiding conflict to seeking conflict, it buys itself a ticket to defeat. This is what happened to us Hungarians with the alliance systems forced upon us during the 20th century. Those alliance systems favored conflict and war, and in war they failed thoroughly. By contrast, from the very beginning NATO has existed as a defensive alliance. Therefore our task is to preserve it as what it was created to be: a peace project.