European Affairs

The first non-career diplomat to hold the position, Donald Blinken brought some special qualifications that proved valuable at this juncture. Vera Blinken brought with her an understanding of her native Hungarian culture and language, and so her background helped warm her husband’s reception by Hungarians. With his experience in investment banking and in higher education, Blinken was well equipped to help Hungarian leaders move away from the business practices of the old Soviet-style planned economy and towards political and market liberalization.

In some respects, there were special advantages in serving as ambassador to a country the size of Hungary. In larger European countries, the local leaders often have long-standing personal ties with prominent American officials and business leaders and therefore they often bypass the ambassador in communicating with the United States. But in Hungary’s case, the country was new as a player in Western affairs so the ambassador was able to play a leading role promoting American attention to Hungary as an important political newcomer and emerging market in central Europe. His personal input was all the more important because during his tenure Hungary was an emerging democracy, with a looming possibility of a socialist revival.

When he arrived, Blinken concluded that the Hungarian government’s economic policies of continuing to subsidize outdated, non-competitive state-owned businesses, coupled with heavy spending on social programs, were threatening to endanger the nascent democracy in the country. He responded by drawing on his experience in the private sector to bring potential American investors into Hungary in order to strengthen business relations between Hungarians and Americans. By the time of Blinken’s departure at the end of 1997, foreign investment in Hungary had reached $16 billion, which at the time amounted to nearly one-third of the total for all of central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

One of his contributions that Blinken feels especially proud of – helping Hungary enter NATO and the European Union – was helped by his insistence that the country’s leaders take action on some important human-rights issues, including measures of restitution for the Jewish community who had suffered in Hungary. This was not on Budapest’s “to-do” list before he pressed for it to become a priority. Blinken recalls talking to Hungarian officials with a view to changing their understanding of “democracy”: beyond fulfilling the criteria for NATO membership, he explained, they needed to embrace and make their own the democratic beliefs behind the formal criteria. And he tried to bring home this message with practical cooperation. For example, he contributed to the restructuring of police departments (with the help of the FBI) to enhance law enforcement methods; he helped establish a journalism school so that the Hungarian media could learn the ways of a free press; and he offered advice on business-friendly economic policies. Hungary, after producing many renowned scientists and Nobel laureates, had suffered a brain-drain as the best talent fled to escape stifling communism and to find more scientific freedom and better funding in the West. Blinken sought to encourage a rebirth of Hungarian science and research. Remember, he told his interlocutors, “a new Hungarian nation is taking shape; and a bold move could lead once more to scientific and technological excellence.”

Some more classic diplomacy came his way when Hungary – and therefore Blinken – were drawn into the civil war in Bosnia as the fighting there peaked in the fall of 1995. American and other NATO commanders began strategizing on how to enforce a peace agreement among the factions. Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army in Europe, General William Crouch, made it clear that the peacekeeping effort would need a base and staging area for U.S. forces – in other words, an area near the Bosnian and Croatian borders with “secure facilities, a safe environment, a dependable infrastructure of roads, rails, and airstrips, and genuine acceptance from and collaboration with the host government.” Hungary was the best candidate. But, as many ambassadors have discovered, obtaining permission for foreign military forces to station in a host country is a challenging task. It proved especially so in Hungary, where people were wary of foreign troops after having so recently gotten rid of the Soviets. Even with the carrot of potential NATO membership, success in obtaining Hungary’s consent and cooperation required Blinken, banking on the trust he developed with key government officials, to cut through some of the red tape in the formal negotiations for the base. As part of the process, Blinken assigned himself the task of functioning as a public relations officer between Hungarian journalists and American troops, working to quell rumors that threatened the cooperation. Within a few months, in January 1996, Hungary had become the staging area for the largest and most complex movement of U.S. forces in Europe since the end of World War II. Blinken prides himself on how rapidly this got done.

Blinken focused on the question of getting prominent Americans to visit Hungary because Budapest is not a capital where major transatlantic institutions are headquartered, and that fact is a handicap in attracting visits by Western leaders. Blinken had the good fortune, he recalls, of two state visits by President Bill Clinton. (On these two trips, the President brought along his foreign-policy speechwriter, Antony “Tony” Blinken – who is the ambassador’s son and is now the National Security Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.)

Reunion in another sense involved Vera Blinken, who as a child fled Hungary to escape the Communist regime. Her return as the American ambassador’s wife gave her an opportunity to help her husband get a personal sense of her fellow countrymen.

Their joint memoir, as a simply and directly written account, provides insight into how much an ambassadorial team’s personal commitment and inventiveness can contribute to enriching a bilateral relationship.

Thea Backlar is a student at Columbia University.

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 10, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2009.