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Steven R. Koltai of Lincolnville is a research affiliate at the MIT Center for International Studies. Previously, he was a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. He served as the State Department’s first senior advisor for entrepreneurship. He was born in Budapest and his family came to the U.S. following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

The opening of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest on Thursday highlights the unique role Hungary plays in the global struggle between democracy and autocracy. Yet President Joe Biden, seeking to champion democracy’s virtues in an especially turbulent time, has no ambassador on the ground. After 18 months in office, his nominee, David Pressman, was only announced last week.

This slow, almost lackadaisical approach must change. If the Biden administration is serious about America’s role in “defending democracy against authoritarianism” then it must do more than host Summits for Democracy (the first was held in December and the second is TBD).  Naming ambassadors is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit available to a president seeking to champion his highest values abroad.

Perhaps President Joe Biden realized this a few weeks ago when he (finally) nominated Bridget Brink as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, a position vacant since 2019. But the case for representation in Hungary is even more compelling. After all, the CPAC gathering in Budapest — organized by the Beltway-based American Conservative Union and billed by its promotional video as “the largest American conservative event” — is just the latest manifestation of the American right’s fascination with Hungary and penchant for strongman rule. An American political group holding its annual conference in Budapest, Hungary, (or maybe CPAC organizers thought it was Budapest, Georgia)?

The conference keynote speaker is, of course, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose hardline populism ( anti-immigrant, anti-Semite, and anti-LGBTQ stances) and skillful bending of judicial and press freedoms excites Trump-wing conservatives, but makes Hungary the only European Union member that democracy watchdog Freedom House declines to rate as “free.” As democracy backslides, the EU also recently moved to deny Hungary some $44 billion in bloc funding on grounds of corruption and rule-of-law violations. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump has been offering Orbán “Complete and Total Endorsement!”, while Fox News host Tucker Carlson warmly touts the “lessons for the rest of us” on display in Orbán’s Hungary. Carlson will be Zooming in to CPAC Budapest 2022.

Hungary matters because, unlike Russia, China, Brazil, and other democracy-autocracy fronts, the country is not only a member of the EU, but also NATO. Today, Orbán’s closeness with Vladimir Putin complicates the Western response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Tomorrow, Hungary could be a dangerous Trojan horse for autocratic populism, strategic misinformation, and QAnon politics into the multilateral and democratic institutions that have held Europe together since World War II. Indeed, some experts view the CPAC conference itself as a “security threat.”

The absence of a sitting ambassador is a small, but nevertheless telling self-inflicted wound.  Ambassadors are the president’s — and America’s — megaphone in foreign countries. They are a constant, local presence, more potent and respected than ad hoc jet-in visits by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Lloyd Secretary Austin, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or First Lady Jill Biden.

Previous presidents understood the signaling importance of ambassadors. President Donald Trump sent to Hungary businessman David Cornstein, a New York City jewelry magnate who lavished praise (and a party) on Orbán in a style reminiscent of his boss. Trump’s ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, was likewise viewed as a strategic button-pusher of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, and President Barack Obama’s Vietnam selection of Ted Osius, a married gay man, bolstered changes to that country’s same-sex marriage laws.

For Biden, then, the job is to be represented by the anti-Orbán: an advocate — in character and/or deed — for the democratic values and civil and human rights protections the administration says it wants to uphold. While the nominee for the post, David Pressman, promises to embody many of those traits, his announcement is way too late in coming.  The process of vetting, nominating, and confirming U.S. ambassadors is, to be sure, a notoriously slow one, no matter the party or personality in charge. The Biden administration is no exception, with over 50 ambassadorships to foreign countries currently vacant and nearly half of those, like Hungary, lacking even a nominee. But there are few parts of the world more critically in need of Biden’s – and America’s – spokesman right now than Hungary.

And that, perhaps, is the crux. The administration might not be able to do much about domestic Hungarian politics, and foreign policy is always a complex congressional game. But when it comes to underscoring American leadership in the war of democracy versus autocracy, there is no excuse for the delay in sending an ambassador to Hungary.