The COVID-19 crisis represents an opportunity for enemies of democracy and has exposed American weaknesses, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. This new vulnerability will embolden China and one day cause historians to look back at the coronavirus period as a turning point in the 21st century, Stephens told Times of Israel editor David Horovitz in the July 23 inaugural installment of the “Behind the Headlines” online video series.
Offering a balanced and comprehensive look at some of today’s issues, the series will see Times of Israel reporters and editors interviewing influential individuals from a wide spectrum of fields. It is first available exclusively for Times of Israel Community members.
Stephens, a contrarian pro-Israel voice among the cadre of op-ed columnists at The New York Times, called the global pandemic “a geopolitical crisis the likes of which are hard to recall in our lifetimes.”
Having already dealt strong blows to democracy and the global economy, the virus isn’t anywhere near finished doing its work, Stephens said. The US is suffering through its highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression and Israel’s jobless rate is up to 24 percent from just 4% before the crisis.
He said that it was a “bitter surprise” for people in the US to see a resurgence of the virus in Israel that brought tens of thousands of new cases in weeks and caused the Jewish state’s contagion rate to skyrocket to sixth-worst globally.
“We thought that you had really beaten this, and that you can come to a point where transmission was so low that effectively it was on its way to extinction, especially because you’re able more capably than we are to close your borders,” Stephens said. “But clearly that’s not the case, and it raises the possibility that even if the United States were to bring it to very low levels, that it can recur in a dramatic way.”
Asked by Horovitz where the challenges to democracy will be starkest and perhaps most permanent, Stephens pointed to the “death knell” of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement – “at least for the moment” – as well as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has been essentially allowed to “rule by decree.”
“There’s a saying that dictatorship breeds disease, because it suppresses information, because it doesn’t care for public services, it doesn’t care for human life,” Stephens said, “but the opposite is also true that disease breeds dictatorship, and I think that arguments have been made that this is an opportunity to crack down on civil liberties.”
Quick to qualify his statement by saying that he wasn’t suggesting that enforcement of mask wearing was an infringement on human rights, he added that “across the world this virus seems to have been a fantastic argument for every despot to control much more of the lives of their citizens than they would have dared previously.”
This is an inflection point, a kind of seminal event, in the 21st century that people will be thinking and writing about from a political point of view 50 and 100 years hence
“I actually think this is an inflection point, a kind of seminal event, in the 21st century that people will be thinking and writing about from a political point of view 50 and 100 years hence,” he said.
Stephens was highly critical of the virus response in the United States. “I think it has revealed in a very big way that we have a system that is hobbled by bad decision making, incompetence, overlapping authorities and the inability to simply make consistent, coherent and intellectually defensible decisions,” Stephens said.
According to Stephens, this has exposed aspects of American political and cultural life that were there to see previously but were masked by a relatively robust economy and placid international circumstances.
“It’s hard for me, despite all of China’s weaknesses and woes, not to see this as a moment when, if I were in the Chinese leadership I would feel relatively emboldened by seeing the extent to which the United States has simply been incompetent in the face of this crisis,” he said.
“And it’s another reason why I think that the geopolitical side of the coronavirus will be perhaps more consequential in the long term than the epidemiological and the health aspects,” said Stephens.
You can also catch the conversation on the TOI Podcast:
Become a Times of Israel Community member to gain access to our Behind the Headlines series and all of our upcoming exclusive webinars. You’ll also gain an ad-free experience of The Times of Israel site and apps, and a weekly insider letter from David Horovitz.
If you are already a Times of Israel Community member, you’ll continue to receive links to the series, along with many other new offers, by email.