Mapping a Pandemic: Coronavirus, the Future of Surveillance and the Liberal State

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An online briefing from experts of the Royal United Services Institute on the impact of Covid-19 on state practices.

In the early 20th century, Sir Halford Mackinder published a book titled Democratic Ideals and Reality posing the question “Can Democracies Make Strategy?” The question recurred in a variety of guises over the course of the 20th century as democracies vied with challenges and challengers.

Liberal democracies have prospered during periods in which the state itself had limited powers. The robustness of their legal, financial and social institutions all rest on the principle of binding the leviathan - fragmenting state powers between competing institutions and curtailing them by law. Yet this limitation of power appears to be making democracies less equipped to deal with everything from epidemics to hybrid warfare.

Can democracies strike a balance on domestic surveillance and exercise greater power of larger, more intrusive government that will be compatible with their foundational principles?

In this seminar, Dr Nicholas Wright outlines his work exploring the state practices that heralded success in the face of COVID 19. In doing so, he poses the question “Post pandemic, can democracies combine centralisation and surveillance in a way that is as credible and effective as modern digital authoritarian states, while maintaining the core tenets of liberal democracies?".



Dr Nicholas Wright

Dr Nicholas Wright is a medical doctor and neuroscientist who works on emerging technology and global strategy at University College London (UCL), Georgetown University, Intelligent Biology and New America.

He works with the US and UK Governments. On artificial intelligence (AI) he advises Europe’s largest tech company, SAP, and various parts of the US government (e.g., Joint Staff) as well as UK Government. DARPA used his definition of Grey Zone conflict for their new AI programme on the Grey Zone. Foreign Affairs chose his piece on AI and the global order for its Top 10 of 2018 on the net. His recent edited book is entitled “AI, China, Russia and the Global Order.”

He was previously an Associate in Nuclear Policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC; in functional brain imaging at UCL and in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics; and was a clinical neurologist in Oxford and London. He has many academic (e.g. Proceedings of the Royal Society), general (e.g. the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs), and policy publications (e.g. and has appeared on the BBC and CNN.

He has a medical degree from UCL, a BSc in Health Policy from Imperial College London, Membership of the Royal College of Physicians (UK), and an MSc in Neuroscience and a PhD in Neuroscience both from UCL.

Read his latest article for Foreign Affairs on 'Coronavirus and the Future of Surveillance' here.

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