Hungary’s Pro-Family Policies Should Prompt US Conservatives to Rethink Their Mindset, Says Gladden Pappin

The president of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs discusses the lessons the US can learn from different socio-political situations in Europe on the sidelines of CPAC Hungary.

Gladden Pappin poses for a picture at CPAC Hungary 2024.
Gladden Pappin poses for a picture at CPAC Hungary 2024. (photo: National Catholic Register)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Could the U.S. learn from the political success of a small Central European country?

This year will be a decisive year politically for the Western world, with the European elections coming up in June followed by the U.S. presidential election in the autumn, so analysts from both the progressive and conservative movements are seeking to provide their respective camps with the intellectual weapons likely to change the game at this year’s polls.

And this includes looking beyond one’s own borders to identify innovative and successful strategies implemented abroad.

A gathering of influential conservatives held in Budapest on April 25-26, the CPAC meeting represented fertile ground for ideas and debate on how to rethink today's rapidly changing societies. Among the political figures in attendance were Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, Santiago Abascal, president of Spain’s VOX party, and U.S. Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla.

Among conservatives, American political theorist Gladden Pappin has become one of the symbols of this convergence, following his appointment in 2023 as head of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, Hungary’s official foreign policy research institution.

A former associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas, Pappin is co-founder of the political journal American Affairs. A visiting senior fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest from 2021 to 2023, he has also been a Knight of Magistral Grace in the Sovereign Military Order of Malta since 2017.

Pappin has also been a pivotal figure in the “post-liberal” movement, made up of Catholic intellectuals who have cited Catholic Church teaching to promote a vision of governance and political life organized around the common good instead of individual rights.

The Register interviewed Pappin last week on the sidelines of CPAC Hungary to get his take on the dynamics at play in Europe and the U.S. in the run-up to the elections.

Your profile stands out in Hungary’s political and cultural landscape, given that you head the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, an important organization linked to the country’s government. How could a small country like Hungary attract an American intellectual like yourself?

I came here in fall of 2021 as a guest of the Matthias Corvinus Collegium, and that was not long after Trump had lost the 2020 election. Many American conservatives were looking for more successful models of conservative governance.

So, I wanted to learn what is it that makes the Hungarian political approach work — what makes the Hungarian “thing” tick. For me the financially supportive family policy stood out as an example that is different from the typical American Republican approach and that has this positive benefit around the socially conservative issues.

But ultimately what I found also was a very distinct, unique, beautiful European nation that was determined to survive and thrive. Between those two reasons I wound up staying.

You’re a strong advocate of Hungarian family policies, which you’d like to see applied in your native country. Is this a model that can easily be exported to a country the size and complexity of the United States?

The policy that usually impresses Americans is that a mother of four children never pays income tax again in her life. But the real issue is that after the overturning of Roe v. Wade in America, the Republicans need to offer some positive agenda that supports the family. Being anti-abortion was sufficient for many years, but it is no longer the case, a more positive message is needed. It is ultimately a mindset difference.

American conservative politicians need to ask: What positively can I do to make the traditional family more likely to survive? Sometimes it’s implementing the anti-woke policies in education. Obviously when there is a big problem, first you have to stop the problem. But with changing mindsets, we need to think ahead about how to increase the likelihood that people will choose the family life they really want.

The abortion issue remains a hot topic in Europe, echoing once again the Roe v. Wade overturn in the U.S. There is even talk of enshrining this right in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. And it seems that a majority of people in Europe are in favor of it. Do you think legal measures would be enough to reverse trends and mentalities?

The reasons that people turn to abortion are complex of course. When you’re single, have no economic hope, and are part of a very chaotic modern dating environment, the likelihood that you’ll have an abortion is higher. So we have to make the married life more choice-worthy and available. Then the abortion rate will go down: It has actually dropped by about 50% in Hungary.

And once we’re going in that direction, we can also take legal steps, as well. What’s happening in America now is a little bit dangerous, because the abortion issue has now become a motivating issue for the left. And in my opinion, the right has no strong pro-family motivation.

So this is why the mindset change is so important. They have to find the policy in the American context that will galvanize voters and interest around conservative social views. What that is, is for the politicians to figure out, but that should be the direction.

You’ve recently stressed the importance of the upcoming European elections to be held on June 9. The ideals of the European project seem to have less and less appeal to the popular classes, including young people, where there is growing disaffection and even hostility towards its institutions. How do you explain this, and what can be done to address it?

I think that a lot of basic elements of European life have decreased in quality in the last five or 10 years.

The migration crisis tore at the heart of many European societies. The policies related to the war in Ukraine drove up energy prices for ordinary European households, so people are becoming less hopeful. That hasn't completely translated to a political change.

In some ways, the political structures and political parties don't give voice to this sentiment among the people, as much as it is actually there. The European parliamentary elections are in June. Right now, the European Parliament tilts to the left. And it is very likely that there will be a tilt to the center-right.

There is a broad disaffection and dissatisfaction indeed. The key is for it to become active on the political level. For that, we also need good political leaders who can grasp this sentiment and manifest it. When people feel that it's not reflected on the political level, then they don’t vote, they don’t care, and they become disaffected in other ways.

From your American perspective, would you say that the European project is doomed to failure?

Well, that’s a good question. I think at the moment there is still a battle for different visions of Europe. After Brexit, the liberal-left, federalist vision of Europe presented itself as the only option. You’re either on board with this vision or you’re against Europe, you’re anti-European. But actually, the key insight, I think, is that Europe will become weaker if it follows the federalist approach.

If we have strong member states that are proud of their culture and civilization and try to defend it, then the overall result will be stronger. You can tell by the percentages of people who want to join the military in Western European societies or to fight for their country. It’s clearly declining.

And the more federal Europe becomes, or the more left-liberal Europe becomes, the less people are willing to fight. So clearly that’s leading to a weaker continent. And for now, at least, there’s still a battle between these two different visions for Europe.

What are your expectations or forecasts for the upcoming elections in Europe and the United States?

I think it’s pretty clear that the European Parliament will shift to the right. The larger question, which is very relevant to consider, is what happens in the American election. Much of European policy, particularly European foreign policy, has been driven by the current occupants of the White House and the American approach of pushing for an aggressive military response in Ukraine and pushing socially liberal and LGBT policies all over the continent.

So I hope that will change in the U.S. in November and if there’s a shift to the right in the European Parliament, then I think that the situation of Europe will definitely improve.

Do you think the United States is in such a position of dominance over Europe? Is it really leading the game?

Not only is the U.S. leading the game, but the U.S. has become much stronger over Europe in the last two to three years than it was beforehand, particularly if we compare it to 10 or 20 years ago.

And that’s most apparent on the level of foreign policy. There’s only a military response in Ukraine when there’s the participation of the United States. But the United States, over the last 20 years, has become very short-term in its military commitments. It changed its mind. It withdrew from Afghanistan after staying for almost 20 years. And now it has left, leaving a kind of disaster in its wake.

So the same could happen in Ukraine. Then Europe has been counting on American resources in this conflict. Without those, it would have to take a different path and seek some kind of peace settlement and negotiations.

Definitely, the U.S. really has been in the driver’s seat on a lot of the big issues — in my opinion, to the detriment of Europe’s ability to defend its own interests.

Is it really possible for the countries of old Europe to reunite without reaffirming their common Christian roots? In this sense, can we hope for a resurgence of a European political Christendom, which has been moribund for several decades?

I think if European countries want to articulate their national interests and to be able to speak to one another and relate, eventually they need concepts from Christianity. It has always played the role of being a social and political glue in Europe.

And the liberal version of the European project imagined that it was possible to build European unity based on other foundations, limited to economics and cultural liberalism. That’s been very deleterious, it has led to terrible political decisions. As people begin to think about their national interests in Europe, again they have to think about Christianity, as well.

The causes of spiritual revivals and shifts are always a bit mysterious. Therefore, it’s always unwise to make predictions about that. But there are many signs of hope in Christian communities all over Europe, particularly in Central Europe. Christianity was essential to the reaction against the communist era for instance. That’s why there is a very deep cultural Christianity in Central Europe, which is also manifested in the public religious life, as well.

You also defend Hungary’s approach to international politics, which you see as more peace oriented. While many Christians will agree with you on this point, a number of them have openly criticized Hungary’s relative neutrality towards the conflict in Ukraine, or its relations with Azerbaijan, which has committed further ethnic cleansing against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Again, as you are an American citizen living in Hungary, what is your personal view on this?

Hungary is unique in having, within its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a state secretariat devoted to the relief of persecuted Christians worldwide — called the Hungary Helps program. In that building, there is even a chapel for Mass. So Hungary is unique in Europe in taking a positively Christian orientation toward its distribution of foreign aid.

But because of the modesty of the country’s size, it participates in international events proportionately. So when it comes to conflicts throughout the world, Hungary’s position is to support the defense of borders as they are commonly recognized under international law. That has led to frequently having to navigate through conflicts where other countries or groups feel very passionately.

Hungary has a very good relationship with Azerbaijan indeed. But at the same time, the Armenian president visited Budapest on a state visit and was received by Prime Minister Orbán earlier this year. Hungary has managed to navigate through a lot of choppy waters.

It has to engage internationally on the basis of its own interests and according as it’s able, which after all is what God asks of us. It contributes to the direct material and physical security of Christians wherever it can.

A major political shift took place in Poland last autumn, with the progressive left coming to power. This country, long ruled by a conservative government, had been Hungary’s main ally against the European hierarchy in Brussels, marked by an openly progressive stance. What are the medium- and long-term consequences for Hungary?

The situation is principally damaging Poland, which is going to suffer a lot under the current government.

Everyone was talking about Hungary’s impending isolation on the European stage. But there has been a strategic rapprochement with Slovakia, which has just elected a government from the SMER party, which, although coming from the left, is sovereigntist and based on the country’s national interests.

When it comes to the war, the role of nation states in Europe, the importance of having an open European economy that’s not subjected to sanctions and the formation of blocs, the Hungarian and Slovak approaches are in fact quite similar. If other states tilt to the right politically in June and adopt that more independent-minded foreign policy approach, then many things could change.

Hungarian President Katalin Novàk delivers her speech during Pope Francis' meeting with the authorities, civil society, and the diplomatic corps in the former Carmelite Monastery in Budapest, Hungary, April 28, 2023.

Katalin Novák Resigns as President of Hungary

Immediately after the outgoing president’s announcement, the minister of justice, Judit Varga, who countersigned the pardon decision in question, also resigned from the government and announced her withdrawal from public life.