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Can Liberal Democracy Survive COVID-19?

Even if Western leaders manage to limit the COVID-19 outbreak’s immediate fallout, it will mean little without forward-looking efforts to strengthen liberal-democratic systems from within. Such a failure would could well amount to handing China victory in the global contest of ideas that is now underway.

MADRID – By some mix of cruel irony and remarkable prescience, the theme of last year’s Venice Biennale – the biennial art exhibition’s 58th incarnation – was: “May you live in interesting times.” The line, purportedly a translation of an old Chinese curse, was meant to highlight the precariousness of life in this dangerous and uncertain age. With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world, and credible global leadership nowhere to be seen, that reality has become impossible to ignore.

Venice has always been a monument to human ingenuity. Situated in the most improbable of locations, it rose to prominence as a hub of trade and commerce, supported by the institutions that underpinned the first era of globalization. It was thus a forebear of liberal internationalism, and remains a symbol of reason, humane values, and breathtaking artistic achievement.

Today, Venice, like most of Europe, stands empty. Moreover, the values and possibilities it represents are nowhere to be seen – on the continent or beyond. Instead, the world is seemingly at the mercy of the United States and China, which appear more concerned with upholding their great-power competition than resolving the COVID-19 crisis.