The memory of Ambassador Mark Palmer, who passed away in January, was last week celebrated in Washington, D.C., by his many friends. He will be remembered by his American colleagues for his amazing diplomatic skills and by the human rights community for his impressive body of work.
Freedom, democracy, and equality were his passion: Hungary and Central Europe owe him the deepest gratitude for his outstanding role in tearing open the Iron Curtain, for standing firm with us in the historic years leading up to the tectonic changes of the late 1980s. These would very likely not have happened had Ambassador Palmer not realized the opportunity, if he had not understood the undercurrents of Hungarian society, if he had not engaged with and deeply understood the country, and if he had not rejected mediocrity. He knew that the success of the rest of Eastern Europe hinged on Hungary’s success.
Mark was a true leader, and as such, he provided hope: he gave hope to Hungarians craving freedom, democracy, and prosperity.
When Mark and his wonderful wife Sushma arrived in Budapest in 1986 (he served in the Hungarian capital until 1991), they immediately became a center of gravity, a widely popular couple. With his ability to cut through the haze, Mark recognized that Hungary was indeed ready to leave behind an authoritarian system. He felt that Hungarian society was boiling, fermenting.
Mark was an unlikely diplomat of the first class. He wore a signature bow-tie, a small detail with a message: I am different, I want to be visible, I am here to help. He was a pragmatic idealist, masterfully building relationships with all who could be useful in the process of change: playing tennis in the morning with the foreign minister, meeting with members of the illegal democratic opposition in the afternoon. In defiance of the traditional diplomatic custom of non-interference, he marched with the young leaders of the opposition movement, lending his personal support and thus his personal protection. But he also made it clear that in democracy, Hungary would need all hands on board to make transition a success. Don’t get stuck in the past, but work on your future, he would tell them.
Mark was one-of-a-kind among ambassadors, combining the traditional tools of diplomacy with unconventional ones. He masterfully aligned the interests of the United States with that of Hungary. He was determined not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors of 1956, when the West let down Hungary in its quest for freedom facing the overwhelming power of the Soviet Union.
Mark repeatedly told his friends: the project is not finished, there are still walls of dictatorship to fall, and it is our duty to prevent walls of dictatorship from being rebuilt.
Lately, he was concerned about the turn Hungary had taken in recent years and he made his concerns public. He wanted to see Hungary, his Hungary, embrace democracy to the fullest, to again become the poster child it once was. He wanted to see a Hungary of political checks and balances. He wanted to see cemented guarantees that minority rights and views, whether political or social, will never ever be disregarded, suppressed, or muted. I wonder what he would do today to help Hungary get back on track.
No one taught me more about the responsibility ambassadors carry. No one has explained to me in clearer terms that, if your choice is between pleasing your headquarters or sticking to your inner compass, you must always choose the latter. He told me:
You serve with your mind and your heart and a healthy mix is what matters. That will make you a good ambassador.
Wrote Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and a common friend and disciple of Mark:
Mark taught me to think strategically, but to always keep American values front and center. As we grapple with new challenges in Europe’s East and the wider neighborhood, Mark’s example will always be a source of inspiration and a reminder of the power of ideas.
A few years ago, I told Mark that as an ambassador I had one and only one role model. “It’s you, Mark!” He was honored, he said, but in his usual modest way added:
Please don’t exaggerate my role, You Hungarians did the heavy lifting.
Hungary and the United States will miss him.