Old Empires Die Hard: Some Notes on The Second Cold War. (A Postscript to “2022: The Polycrisis So Far.”)

Mr Nemo
5 min readJan 23


An edgy essay by Otto Paans

Quartz Weekend Brief, 5 November 2022

In response to my recent edgy essay, “2022: The Polycrisis So Far,”[i] we received an interesting question from a reader, Nathan Fifield, asking us whether or not we thought that this complex of crises had the potential to develop into a new Cold War? However, this new Cold War would not only be between China and the US on the one hand, but also by the same token between China and the Western World on the other. What would be the position of Europe in this situation?

My response would be that The Second Cold War already started well before the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Its pre-emptive moves were made as soon as it became clear that (i) the combination of democracy and a free market would not turn the disintegrating Soviet Union into an extension of Europe or the liberal political model of the West in any case, and (ii) China became a world power that the Western world has no fitting answer to.

The reason for this ambiguity is quite simple: China — like the former Soviet Union — is a totalitarian state. But — unlike the Soviet Union — it freely participates in and significantly determines the global market, even to the extent that the West became crucially dependent on the Chinese production capacity.

However, what we recognized too late, and then only hesitantly — because there was money to be made, after all — is that China not only has trade ambitions. It also still is an Empire, at least culturally. And, as both the Brexit and the idea of Novorussia (New Russia — i.e. a new Russian-speaking culture stretching from Ukraine to Sakhalin) demonstrate, old empires die hard. Britain still harbors the hope of being a global trading nation as it was in Victorian times; Russia aims to be the 19th-century empire that included vast territories; China want to be the “central country” once again: an Empire in the Far East.

State powers that were once successful and face a decline can’t shake the thought that they still have role to play. Similarly, new political powers that gain power and prestige look back to the glorious times of old in an attempt to recreate them.

This means that the US-Soviet Union conflict is largely over, and the US-China conflict has just begun. Europe as a political rather than as a military power will have no option other than to follow the US lead, even while the US itself seems deeply internally divided. The Second Cold War will presumably have a few new characteristics that set it apart from The First Cold War.

First, it will be about natural resources and neocolonialism, more than ideology in the narrow sense. The so-called developing world is the prize in this global competition. And it remains only to be seen whether the Western strategy of economic development in exchange for political influence and humanitarian aid will be tenable at all.

Second, it will involve the recognition that a small open conflict may lead to targeted and coldly calculated nuclear disaster. And this is where the situation becomes existentially dangerous. For, while an all-out conflict knows only losers, a small disaster might still result in a winner. When Chechen leader Kadyrov stated in 2022 that the use of a small tactical nuke on the Ukrainian battlefield could be an option, he was not bluffing. He was merely pointing out that some people do not care about a local catastrophe in the bigger scheme of things. And so, these types of situations will increasingly be used to enforce negotiations.

For Europe, this means trouble, because its geopolitical position is very weak. The Continent can rely only on talking, but it still plays the global game as if it were a colonial power, and diplomacy works only when one can make it clear that consequences could follow, if talking results in a draw. And Europe cannot back that claim up, save perhaps by relying on NATO. However, by and large, NATO is the US military. Then, given US reservations about spending too much and their internal divisions, Europe stands alone.

Third, small countries will be once again buffer states for large and powerful empires. If push comes to shove, will the US really back Taiwan if an open conflict can be avoided by choosing not to? Will Europe turn a blind eye when Turkey once again attacks Artsakh, so as to appease the Turkish regime to help in negotiating with Russia? Will the EU support Moldova as it did the Ukraine, were the Russians to invade? These are all questions that we don’t have answers to yet. The crucial point is that politicians more than ever will have to choose between escalating a conflict or making a painful and even immoral concession.

Fourth, the new war is a hybrid war of sabotage, cyber attacks, and strategic maneuvering in digital space. No longer is either clumsy ideology or Pravda required when one can blow up gas pipelines, disable the electricity network of a continent, or interrupt the global flow of goods and services. These strategies are beginning to be more effective than large military operations or even biological weapons.

Therefore, The Second Cold War is already well underway, and it is being fought with more means and on a larger scale than the first one. The Chinese — oh irony! — curse, “may you live in interesting times,” has thereby acquired a whole new meaning….


[i] O. Paans, “2022: The Polycrisis So Far,” Against Professional Philosophy (1 January 2023), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2023/01/01/2022-the-polycrisis-so-far/>.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 23 January 2023

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.