The discipline of International Relations (IR) and the public discourse about current affairs have both fallen into some confusion about the term cold war. Are we in a new cold war, or does the term apply only to the historical period 1947–89? Is it an analytical or a historical concept? This article argues for it as an analytical concept, proposes a definition, and applies it to both the First and Second Cold Wars. It seeks to open a research agenda on these questions, not to be the final word.

The terms ‘New Cold War’, ‘Cold War II’, and ‘Second Cold War’ have been in regular use since at least 2014, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine (Trenin 2014). The implication of such usage is that ‘cold war’ is an analytical term representing a particular type of conflict in international relations. The term itself identifies cold wars as a type of war, not just a bitter form of peace. It bifurcates the concept of war into ‘hot’ and ‘cold’. Hot war covers the traditional meaning of major, open fighting–‘shooting wars’. Cold war implies more restrained and circumspect methods of confrontation. It embodies an active desire to avoid direct hot war amongst great power rivals, but it leaves space for both more limited forms of violence, and indirect hot wars involving proxies.

Unsurprisingly, claims for a new cold war have been contested. Early users acknowledged that their proposed Second Cold War was a smaller scale affair than the original, or First, Cold War. This usage was opposed on the grounds that US-Russia tensions after Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine did not look enough like the First Cold War. There was no ideological divide, no associated blocs, and a very different distribution of power (Rojansky and Salzman 2015; Walt 2018). This discussion opened the idea that there should be defining criteria for cold wars, but simply pegged that to comparison with the First Cold War. The issue of a theoretical definition was not given systematic consideration.

Usage of ‘Second Cold War’ and similar terms became more common after 2018, by which time it was being applied more to rising US tensions with China, than just to the West’s relationship with Russia (Fergusson 2019; Kaplan 2019; Hirsch 2022; Stent 2022). With China in the picture, some of the original objections lost ground. There was an ideological divide between democracy and authoritarianism. There were emerging coalitions: China and Russia versus the so-called ‘Global West’. Although the distribution of power was different from that in the First Cold War, it looked more equal between the US and China than between the US and Putin’s Russia. And, as in the First Cold War, there was growing competition for influence in the Global South.

Sticking with the First Cold War model, opponents such as Ross (2020) argue that there is too little zero-sum ideological confrontation, and too many common interests and economic entanglements, to frame the US-China relationship as a cold war. Brands and Gaddis (2021: 10) want to have it both ways. They reject the idea that the current configuration is of the same type as the original Cold War (sanctified with capital letters), but accept that it is a cold war (lower case) in the sense of ‘a protracted international rivalry’. Others think that the term ‘Cold War’ should be reserved only for the post-1945 confrontation between the West and the Soviet bloc. The case is that making an analogy between the current global configuration and the original cold war distorts more than it enlightens. There is also a justified normative concern that the analogy helps to construct the present US-China rivalry as a cold war, thereby escalating it.

The debate about whether ‘cold war’ is a general concept or not has precedents. The First Cold War is now generally remembered, and analysed, as a single event stretching over four decades. But at the time it was common to refer to a ‘Second Cold War’ beginning in 1979, and following on from a period (variously measured) of détente that separated it from an initial ‘First Cold War’.

Among those struggling to understand the phenomenon from inside the first case of it, Fred Halliday (1983) was one of the sharper exponents of this view. He saw that there were significant fluctuations in the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union, and argued for reserving the term ‘cold war’ for the more extreme periods of alienation and confrontation. He recognised the bifurcation into hot and cold wars, but was ambivalent about whether cold war was war, oddly arguing that cold wars raised the probability of war (Halliday 1983: 7). He also engaged, as the present debate does, in the question of analogy: is the Second Cold War similar enough to the First to justify being put into the same category? His answer was yes, because the similarities overrode the differences. Halliday was in favour of seeing cold war as a general analytical category, but within a model defined by the particularities of the First Cold War.

I accept the current convention that the First Cold War ran as a single event, albeit with ups and downs, from 1947 to 1989. The next section reviews the key characteristics of cold wars and sets up a definition for them. I argue that cold war emerged out of the specific conditions of the mid-twentieth century and cannot be pushed back into earlier history. The third section compares cold and hot wars, stressing the lower intensity and higher durability of cold wars. It sets the First and Second Cold Wars into the sequence of world wars. The fourth section compares the First and Second Cold Wars, seeing the latter as having lower ideological differences, with the main issue being boundary disputes over spheres of influence. The fifth section focuses on the outlook for the Second Cold War, especially how it will be fought, and how climate change will impact on its dynamics. The conclusion summarises the main points and raises some considerations for policymakers. It examines how the Second Cold War might end, suggesting that the most likely scenario is that it will be long and have no winner.

Defining cold war

As far as I am aware, there has been no systematic attempt to define cold war as a general concept transcending the initial case. Walter Lippmann (1947) coined the term, yet made no attempt to define it. Having used it as the title for his book, he never referred to it in the discussion. He seems to have thought of it as a description covering the uncertain few years after 1945 in which the various armies of occupation in Europe were facing each other while awaiting a diplomatic settlement.

So long as there was only one case, there was not much pressure to formulate a conceptual definition. Historians of the (First) Cold War had little incentive to explore general definitions. Their job was to define it as a specific historical event. Westad (2017: 1–3), for example, focused his analysis on ideological polarisation and bipolarity. This nicely captured the particularities of the 1947–1989 event without necessarily telling us much about cold wars generally. One of the most prominent historians of the (First) Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis (2005: xiv) even went out of his way to say of his book: ‘Nor does it make any contribution whatever to international relations theory’.

With the First Cold War now history, and discussion of a Second in play, IR scholars need a more concise, conceptual, definition. There is no doubt that the First Cold War had many special characteristics of its own and comprises a coherent field of historical study. But for conceptual purposes, those special characteristics need to be distinguished from the essential characteristics of cold wars as a type of war.

The First Cold War began in the circumstances that followed the Second World War—the biggest hot war in history. Something about those post-1945 circumstances generated a need to re-define war that had not been present before. The obvious candidate is nuclear weapons, and the unprecedented increase in powers of destruction that they enabled. As was understood right from the beginning, when nuclear weapons were deployed in substantial numbers by both sides, they rendered all-out great power war irrational on two counts. First, the cost of a major nuclear war would heavily outweigh anything that might be gained. Second, once two or more countries had ample stocks of such weapons, the distinction between victory and defeat would be meaningless. All the participants in a major nuclear exchange would be destroyed, possibly taking all or most of humankind with them in a holocaust of blast, fire, and radiation (Brodie 1946; Blackett 1948; Gaddis 1986: 120–23). As Gaddis (2005: 261) put it: ‘no one could be sure of winning, or even surviving, a great war’.

This constituted a transformation of circumstances in the longstanding institution of war.Footnote 1 Even as late as the run-up to the Second World War, the Axis powers could calculate that they had some chance of winning big and becoming superpowers. If defeated, they would live to fight another day after a period of humiliation, impoverishment, occupation, and punishment. With nuclear weapons in play, such calculations were, if not quite impossible, then vastly riskier. Nuclear war was certainly not impossible. Various routes from accident, through miscalculation, to wilful command could trigger it. But it was not unreasonable to think of nuclear war as a kind of madness, lying outside the bounds of the rational means-ends calculations of statecraft. Nuclear weapons confronted humankind with the possibility of species suicide for the first time.

This massive degradation in the utility and legitimacy of war as traditionally fought is the crucial development for understanding the advent of cold war. It makes cold war a structural outcome when what Deudney (2007: 17) calls ‘violence interdependence’ is pushed to very high levels by weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The US and the Soviet Union might be zero-sum ideological rivals struggling to dominate the future of modernity,Footnote 2 but nuclear war was ruled out as a reasonable or effective way of pursuing their struggle. Only Mao managed the extreme calculation that enough Chinese might survive a nuclear war to make such a conflict a chosen path to ideological victory. Cold war was thus a distinctive product of the atomic age. It cannot be projected back into history before 1945.

On this basis, I reject the superficial idea from Brands and Gaddis (2021: 10) that cold war means just ‘any protracted international rivalry’. I also reject Halliday’s (1983: 2) definition that cold wars ‘involve an erosion of confidence in the mechanisms of peace-making and in the ability of politicians to find solutions to world problems; at the same time, they increase fear of the opponent and the drive towards competition’.

A cold war is not just a rivalry without open fighting. There have been innumerable historical cases of arms racing and armed confrontation in history that were not cold wars. These cases did not inspire the need to differentiate between hot and cold wars. They were mainly preparations for war made in the expectation that war was possible, likely, and even desirable. Remember the millions who marched into the First World War with enthusiasm to show who was top nation in Europe. In the world prior to WMD, open, all-out combat was a rational and legitimate choice for states whose differences were diplomatically irreconcilable.

Cold wars reflect a situation defined by two simultaneous criteria. First, all-out open fighting between WMD-armed great powers has been made irrational, if not yet quite illegitimate. Second, states still have differences between them that they see as worth fighting about. Cold war is the answer to the dilemma of wanting to, or feeling compelled to, pursue deep rivalries, while avoiding all-out open fighting among states equipped with WMD. The condition arising, when fear of hot war balances or overrides fear of defeat, can be labelled a defence dilemma (Buzan 2007 [1991]: ch. 7). There were hints of a defence dilemma in the interwar years, when fears of aerial bombardment by poison gas and high explosive led some to think that a war with such weapons would destroy European civilisation. But not until nuclear weapons were used at the end of the Second World War did fear of hot war begin to challenge fear of defeat as a deep mainstream view.

Westad (2007: 2) defines the American understanding of cold war as ‘aggressive containment without a state of war’, noting that the Soviet Union did not use the concept. But this also is too narrow a view. It suggests that cold war is not war and says nothing about its surrounding circumstances and aims. As the huge, and largely American, literature on deterrence made clear right from the beginning, in the circumstances of a nuclear age, the first goal of military policy must be to prevent nuclear hot war through mutual deterrence.Footnote 3

Cold war did not prevent efforts to pursue both defences against nuclear attack, and capabilities for disarming first strikes. Neither did it prevent planning for nuclear warfighting (Davis 1975–6). There were thus elements of preparation for hot war within the First Cold War. The limits of rationality and the danger of misperception were well understood (Jervis 1976; Snyder 1978). The difference with strategy before 1945 is that such preparations were not the main aim of the exercise. Deterrence and war avoidance were the primary goals. Only with those in place could consideration be given to how the war would be fought. Cold war was still war. Each side recognised that the issues under contention were worth fighting for, and that losing was not acceptable. But mutual extinction made these values meaningless and had to be avoided.

The two basic requirements that define cold war are thus the existence of disputes seen as worth fighting about plus a defence dilemma that raises hot war to, or above, the level of defeat as the military catastrophe to be avoided. This suggests more precise conceptual terms for the conditions defining cold wars:

A durable and deep political confrontation about power and international order that, because of the existence of a strong defence dilemma, neither side wants to resolve by a hot war.

Cold wars still have to be fought, but not among the principal powers, and not by all-out military means.

This definition opens the possibility of moving away from the particularities of the First Cold War and thinking about the general nature of cold wars. The First Cold War is a demanding model for the general concept of cold war. It suggests the need for superpowers; zero-sum ideological polarisation; competing coalitions/alliances around the principal antagonists; a periphery of nonaligned states; proxy wars; and arms racing. It was explicitly staged at the global level, constituting a structural framing for the whole of the international system/society. Its global quality is clearly indicated by the comprehensive coverage of its associated terms: ‘first’, ‘second’, and ‘third’ ‘worlds’. The First Cold War also suggests that cold wars, like most hot ones, have clear outcomes defined by winners and losers. This, however, is a sample of one.

Do all cold wars have to have these qualities, including operating at the global level? Given the proposed definition, the answer is no. Several conditions on the regional level could qualify as species of cold war: India and Pakistan, India and China, and Iran and Israel. Such lower-level cold wars might or might not feature zero-sum ideological polarisation; competing coalitions of states; a periphery of nonaligned states; and/or proxy wars. Any level of cold war is almost certain to feature arms racing, which is necessary to maintain the credibility of deterrence. There must also be some deep dispute, but this might be territorial or cultural, or mere power politics, rather than ideological. The point is that the relationship must combine differences seen as worth fighting for, with a strong fear of hot war as an acceptable means of resolving them. Cold war becomes the definition of conflictual high politics for a world in which the defence dilemma makes all-out war between states armed with WMD too dangerous to be worth the risk.

Cold wars and hot wars

Keeping in mind that we are talking about the general category of war in international society, what are the important differences and similarities between cold wars and hot ones?

The key difference is that by definition, in a cold war, there should be no large-scale direct combat between major powers (whether global or regional) armed with WMD. In good part because of that, cold wars are under less time pressure to come to a resolution. As amply illustrated by the First and Second World Wars, hot wars, especially when they are all-out, are intense. Sustaining full fighting mobilisation puts immense strain on society at all levels. The economic and social costs can only be sustained for relatively brief bursts before victory has to be won, or defeat, or compromise, accepted. By comparison, cold wars are slow motion affairs.

Cold wars also have intensity, and put strains onto economy and society. But their day-to-day costs and social disruptions are much lower than hot wars, which makes them more sustainable. Cold wars create room for diplomacy all along the way, whereas hot wars tend to cluster diplomacy at the end, and leave little room for it during the fighting. During the First Cold War, the two superpowers negotiated extensively over arms control as a way of managing the dangers of their military competition and deployment. They could do this because the defence dilemma gave them a strong shared interest in survival. It is plausible that some other shared-fate threat, such as climate change or pandemics, might ride on a mutual interest in survival to enable diplomacy between leading cold war rivals.

Cold wars create much more room for proxy wars than hot wars. In a hot war, there is more pressure either to join one side, or remain neutral. The major powers in a hot war might well invade and control third parties. Cold wars also create pressure to take sides, and where this causes splits within third party states, the principals have incentives to intervene to sway the country to one side or the other. Competitive interventions into the affairs of neutral/nonaligned countries are likely to be a common feature of global cold wars. They can benefit the neutral/nonaligned by giving them leverage over the central parties. Or they can disrupt them by pushing them into debilitating proxy wars. Vietnam was a good example of this during the First Cold War, as were the various civil wars and interventions following the breakup of the Portuguese Empire in Africa. The pressure towards proxy wars can also operate between local rivals within the neutral/nonaligned world as well as within them.

Since both hot and cold wars are types of war, there are also important similarities between them. Both feature differences seen as worth fighting for. These can generate coalitions prepared to align around those differences, and third parties wanting to stay neutral/nonaligned. Wars, both hot and cold, push towards a tendency to think in terms of geopolitics, understood broadly as the international interplay of geography and politics. Geopolitics ‘addresses the “big picture” and offers a way of relating local and regional dynamics to the global system’ (Tuathail, 1998:1). Containment is a good example of geopolitical thinking and strategy.

A surge in geopolitical thinking might be one benchmark for identifying the beginning of cold wars. The start of hot wars is usually made visible by either declaration or shooting. The start of cold wars is not so clear. They do not have to be marked by either declaration or shooting. But as in the late 1940s, and the early 2020s, they may well be marked by the identification of zero-sum relationships between rival powers, alliance formation or strengthening, and strategising in terms of geopolitical containment or breakout.

Apart from their big difference over direct fighting between the principals, cold wars share much with hot ones in terms of a range of offensive tactics and techniques including propaganda, espionage, sanctions, boycotts, covert attacks, and disruption of infrastructure. The techniques and tactics of cyberwar are a new addition to both hot and cold wars, which could easily become a prominent feature of the constrained fighting requirements of cold wars. It remains an open question as to how far such techniques can be used to attack physical and political infrastructure without crossing the line into hot war. Deterrence is intrinsic to cold wars, but it can also play a part in hot ones, as with the mutual restraint in Europe on the use of chemical weapons during the Second World War.

Hot and cold fit easily together in the historical patterns of war and peace. The First Cold war can be placed as the third round in a trilogy of world wars. These wars were not only about power rivalries, but also, and at least equally, about rival ideologies struggling to control the future of industrial modernity. Gaddis (2005) makes this relationship almost seamless by setting up the main cause of the First Cold War as the breakdown of the winning coalition of the Second World War. For the advocates of a Second Cold War, it is obvious that the emerging conflict fits into this longer historical pattern. Its alignments suggest considerable resonance with the First Cold War, though the distribution of power and the degree of economic entanglement are markedly different, and the tone is set more by cultural and geopolitical differences than ideological ones.

Each war set up the next one. Whatever their differences in conduct and strategy, these wars were tightly linked as a historical series. They largely featured the same cast of players, albeit with some notable shifts in power and alignment. In this longer perspective, the First Cold War was World War III, and the Second will be World War IV.

The First and Second Cold wars

What makes the First and Second Cold Wars members of the same class of event? Within that commonality, how are they similar and how different?

The defence dilemma constraint is similar for both the First and Second Cold Wars: fear of escalation to nuclear warfighting. Within that similarity, there is the difference that nuclear weapons technology is now mature. The Second Cold War does not have the specific military instability of the First, where rapid new developments of both nuclear weapons and their delivery systems were constantly challenging the deterrence equation. So far in the Second Cold War there is much less daily fear of hair-triggered nuclear war than there was during the First. There will nevertheless be new technological twists, such as hypersonic delivery systems, and better defences against incoming missiles. Improving AI will impact on both the practice of command and control, and its vulnerability to cyberattack. The Second Cold War will not be without its own technological turbulence, and concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons will continue to be an issue.

The existence of differences seen as worth fighting about is more complicated. There are some similarities, but the mix is different. The First Cold War was primarily about a zero-sum ideological conflict over the future political economy of modernity. It fitted comfortably with the Realist assumption that there was a permanent struggle amongst the greatest powers to dominate and lead the international system. Within that was a variety of more traditional disputes over spheres of influence that affected all the regions of the world. Some of these disputes were generated by the Cold War, and some were absorbed into it in varying degrees (Westad 2007; Lüthi 2020).

The Second Cold War is still unfolding. There is an element of ideological difference in democracy versus authoritarianism, but this seems a pale shadow of the universal communist versus liberal-democratic capitalism that animated the First Cold War. Democratic states have seldom been averse to dealing with authoritarian regimes if need be. The difference between authoritarian and democratic government is increasingly dressed up in specific cultural/civilisational rhetorics. That framing opens a path to coexistence that was not there for the divide between ideological universalisms during the First Cold War. The difference between democratic and authoritarian states will probably not be seen as worth fighting about unless either side seeks to impose itself on the other, or expand its sphere in other regions by force.

This has big implications for the aims and dynamics of the Second Cold War. It is not driven by a logic of world domineering power politics as Realist theory assumes. None of the major powers either wants to lead or dominate global society, or would accept another doing so. None look like having the capability to pursue universal dominance. During the Second Cold War, the idea of any global hegemony is itself becoming illegitimate (Buzan 2023: 337–41). The Western powers need to accept that they no longer own the future and do not have the right or the power to enforce their view (Bilgin 2008; Williams 2020). The currently unfolding structure of a diffusion of wealth, power, and cultural and political authority extending well beyond the first-round modernisers in the West and Japan can be labelled deep pluralism (Buzan 2023: 331–410).

Those powers (notably China, France, India, Iran, and Russia) that have long called for a more multipolar world look to be getting their wish. As the development gap between core and periphery opened up in the 1840s closes, the West is necessarily in relative decline. The global power transition is thus a much larger event than just the US and China. The First Cold War was still largely an affair of the core group of states that began their successful modernisation during the nineteenth century. The Second Cold War adds in great powers formerly in the periphery that are part of the second round of modernisation since the 1970s.

Yet while the anti-Western powers always understood what they were against (the continuance of Western/US hegemony), they seem to have little coherent idea about how to manage world order under deep pluralism. None want to step into America’s shoes. Many of them are drifting into a kind of rhetorical culturalism, claiming rights for themselves on that basis: China (‘Chinese characteristics’), India (Hindutva), and the Islamic world (umma) (see Buzan and Acharya 2022). This culturalism might become a distinctive feature of the Second Cold War. It could play a similar role to ideology in the First, by providing a logic that groups states into identity blocs.

In this perspective, the West is becoming one, or possibly two, amongst several fairly evenly balanced cores of wealth, power, and cultural and political authority in a deeply pluralist global society. Both Europe and the US might well join the drift towards parochial culturalism, either together or separately. This identity drift away from globalisation could, if poorly handled, feed the conflict in the Second Cold War. If well handled, claims to a right of cultural distinctiveness could lead towards coexistence by mutual acceptance of such rights in the same way as has been done with sovereignty. Deep pluralism potentially generates a more defensive outlook in which different cultural powers seek to maintain their differences more than to impose them on others.

This form of political difference is mediated by the victory of capitalism in the First Cold War. That war was substantially about the zero-sum question of capitalism or not, and the two superpowers were economically detached. In the Second Cold War, China and the US have major economic relations. Their main difference is about democratic or authoritarian capitalism (Buzan and Lawson 2014). At least in its early years, such entanglement provided the constraint of interdependence on conflict. It remains to be seen how far this constraint will be dismantled by rising economic nationalism.

The things seen as worth fighting over in the Second Cold War are thus more in the traditional realm of great power rivalry. Central here is the game of status, power, and influence now being played between the US and China. This is partly about global rivalry, but so far mainly about positions in East and South Asia. Both sides are taking an increasingly militarised view of their rivalry. They are deploying against each other and engaged in an arms race, posing a risk of military incidents. The US will not accept being toppled from primacy, and China will not accept being contained. Taiwan and Korea remain potential flashpoints left over from the First Cold War, but now more central. The South China Sea is an additional flashpoint.

Intertwined with this core rivalry is a broader one about spheres of influence. In Asia, the Chinese Communist Party has made an absolute commitment to recover Taiwan and complete its revolution, by hot war if necessary. It has also militarised its position in the South China Sea. India and China already skirmish over their border and prepare for larger military engagement. The US has come close to saying it will defend Taiwan if China attacks it and regularly uses military means to assert its right to navigation in the East and South China Seas. The stakes are high. The boundaries of great power spheres are contested. Japan is on the front line and faces difficult choices. There are ideological hangovers from the First Cold War in Korea that pose a continuing risk of hot war there.

In Europe, the difference is also geopolitical: over the location of the boundary between the Russian and Western spheres. This is mainly about Ukraine, but the Baltics and Moldova are also in play. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already made clear that it is prepared to fight a hot war over this boundary. The war in Ukraine is not an existential issue for Russia in terms of its standing as an independent polity. But it come close to existential in terms of Russia’s standing as a great power. Retaining great power standing is peculiarly important to Russian identity (Neumann 1996). Without Ukraine, its material power would be dented rather than broken. Its geostrategic position would be weakened if Ukraine joined NATO. But its great power cultural claim to be the core and protector of a Slavic, Orthodox civilisation that stretches from the Chinese border into Europe would be shattered. The Putin regime strongly promotes this civilisational great power view. It wants to reassert control over post-Soviet space and therefore can only see the war in existential terms for its vision of Russia (Ramani 2023: 12).

For Europe, as for Russia, the Ukraine war is more about status and security than the right to an independent existence. The obvious issue is whether a Russia victorious in Ukraine, and still imperially minded, would then bring the threat of war to the EU, especially the Baltics and Poland? The move of Finland into NATO, and of Sweden towards it, is blatantly geopolitical. It hardens Europe’s military and economic frontiers with Russia.

Less obvious, but of more durable importance, is the importance of Ukraine to Europe’s and the West’s sense of status. Cheered on by the Global South, China and Russia continuously assert and celebrate the relative decline of the West. Europe and Japan feel they are losing ground to the US and China in terms of wealth and power. In this context, Ukraine becomes a major symbol. It wants to become part of Europe and the West, and by doing so offers a strong rebuke to the image of decline. If Europe and the West fail to prevent a Russian victory in Ukraine that would hugely reinforce the idea that they are in decline. Although this logic is strongest for Europe, it also applies to Japan, Australia, and, at least up until the 2024 election, the US.

The situation in Ukraine brings us to proxy wars, in which the contending great powers support opposing third parties in outside wars. Proxy wars were a common feature of the First Cold War. They enabled the principals to keep the hot fighting at arm’s length. They are perhaps already beginning to do so in the complex Middle East nexus generated by the Israel-Palestine, Israel-Iran, and Arab-Iran rivalries, and in the interventions in the political instability in the Sahel.

There is a closer parallel between the First and Second Cold Wars in terms of half-proxy wars. A half-proxy war is where one principal power engages directly and is opposed by local proxy forces supported by the rival camp. During the First Cold War, there were three major cases of this: two when the US committed its own forces against a Soviet-supported ally (North Korea, 1950–53 and North Vietnam 1965–1975), and one when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan between 1979 and 89, and the US supported the mujaheddin. In the Second Cold War, Ukraine is the half-proxy war, with Europe, the US, South Korea and Japan supporting Ukraine against Russian invasion. Half-proxy wars still keep the principal powers from engaging each other directly, but they are more dangerous than proxy ones. They blur the boundary between cold and hot war.

As defenders of confining cold war to the 1947–89 case point out, there is a big difference between a struggle over the boundaries of spheres of influence, as in the current Cold War, and one over which powers and which ideologies should dominate global society, as in the First Cold War. Disputes over boundaries, however deep and difficult, should be easier to resolve than disputes over who dominates the world and with what ideas. With the decline of liberal and communist universalisms, and the rise of anti-hegemonism, spheres of influence have become more self-limiting. That said, in the Second Cold War, such boundary disputes are amplified by the extent to which they straddle the democratic/authoritarian divide. The Baltics, the two Koreas, Moldova, Taiwan, and Ukraine, all fit that pattern. These are clearly things that both sides see as worth fighting about.

As during the First Cold War, there is also rivalry for political and economic influence in the Global South between the China-Russia partnership and the West plus Japan and India. That game, however, is much less concentrated and ideological than it was during the First Cold War and seems unlikely to be thought worth fighting over in any direct way. The Second Cold War is much more removed from colonialism and decolonisation that was the First.

The First Cold War was conjoined with decolonisation, and its core conflict penetrated deeply and often violently into the process (Westad 2007: 5). The Second Cold War has echoes of that and remains significantly affected by the strong post-colonial resentment in the Global South and the ongoing forgetting in the former metropolitan powers. But the Second Cold War is about the stage following decolonisation. Indeed, the very loose term ‘Global South’ will probably itself give way as what was once the Third World continues to differentiate into many worlds. China leads the way in demanding respect for ‘Chinese characteristics’. Others will surely follow not only in asserting their own claims to cultural respect, but having the wealth and power to back those claims.

Like the First Cold War, the Second is still primarily an affair of the core powers. The Western bloc is largely of the same composition. China is now inside the core, and Russia and China are once again on the same side. Within that, there is a different distribution of power within and between the blocs. China and India are much more powerful in the Second Cold war than in the First. Russia and the US are less powerful. Having absorbed the former Soviet colonies, Europe is considerably bigger, though perhaps not much changed in its relative power. The EU might begin to look more like a normal great power if the war in Ukraine continues to strengthen its defence and security policy, and force it to think about itself more geopolitically.

In the authoritarian bloc, China is now the senior partner, and Russia is the junior one. This imbalance is worsening steadily as Russia stagnates and China develops. During the First Cold War, the relationship between Russia and China was famously volatile, shifting from ally to enemy and back again. Questions remain for the Second Cold War about the stability of this relationship. A case can be made that it is more durable this time around (Cox 2016). But underlying differences over history, territory, and status remain, which could once again unravel the partnership. Putin’s tilt towards China is deep, but by no means irreversible if leaderships or circumstances change.

On the democratic side, the US is less clearly the leader, and if it elects a Trumpian president in 2024 might drift further away from that role. Europe, Japan, and others are waking up to the fact that they must do more, possibly much more, to defend themselves. India continues to prefer occupying the middle ground, but is being pushed towards the West by its own regional cold war with China. Turkey is seeking to strengthen itself as an intercivilisational power/insulator. During the Second Cold War, it could well drift away from the close ties it had to Europe and the West during the First.

The beginning of the Second Cold War might be dated from 2020, when China shocked Western opinion by its ruthless overthrow of the ‘two systems’ regime in Hong Kong. That event pushed much Western opinion into alignment with the American disposition to see China as a threat. This shift was reinforced in 2022, when Russia attempted to annex Ukraine, and China, by failing to oppose this move, abandoned its principle of supporting sovereignty and nonintervention. By 2022, the competing core coalitions were viewing each other in geopolitical terms, and a penumbra of neutral and nonaligned had clearly begun to crystalise.

Outlook for the Second Cold War

The Second Cold War is still in its early years, but its opposing coalitions, its issues seen as worth fighting for, and its defence dilemma, already look deep and durable. It is not possible to predict its precise course, but there are two areas in which it already seems clear that the unfolding of the Second Cold War will diverge from that of the First: how it will be fought, and the effect of climate change.

Despite the maturing of nuclear weapons, the overall revolution in military affairs that has been destabilising great power relations since the 1840s remains ongoing. At the time of writing, it looks as if the main new drivers of military instability in the Second Cold War will be drones and cyberwar. Behind both of these is the rapidly evolving rise of artificial intelligence (AI). The use of drones in hot war is currently being worked out in Ukraine and the Middle East. In cold war, their main use will probably be as one important component in a more ubiquitous and intense surveillance.

Cyberwar capabilities have grown massively in the decades since the First Cold War and will continue to do so. Cyberwar enables a great variety of actors to mount attacks against each other that fall below the traditional threshold of armed conflict, and to do so even against great powers. Such opportunism is difficult to deter, and the cost of entry to cyberspace is low. It provides a domain of high interconnectedness and constant contact, in which substantial rewards can be available to those with the requisite knowledge and persistence, both state and non-state actors (Fischerkeller and Harknett 2017).

Cyberwar blurs the difference between peace and war in ways that make it well-suited to fighting cold wars. It allows a considerable degree of covert activity, enabling actors to attack each other without engaging in overt hot wars. It makes room for non-state actors, either associated with states, or as players in their own right. Cyberwar is already a big feature of the Second Cold War. It could become much more so, involving a wide spectrum of attacks from information theft, to the destabilisation of domestic politics. It is adding new possibilities to the disruption of logistics and the infrastructures of energy, transportation, and communication. These can also be done by more conventional means and are already a feature of the Second Cold War.

A good case can be made that deterrence is not a viable strategy in the cybersphere, and that cyberspace generates a need for persistent cyberwar engagement across a wide range of actors and issues. The medium lends itself both to attack, and to a doctrine and practices of forward defence (Fischerkeller and Harknett 2017; Stevens, forthcoming). It this assessment is correct, then cyberwar may become more than just a new way of fighting cold wars. It could become a mechanism for spreading and perpetuating them.

It might well become a question during the Second Cold War as to how far attacks on infrastructure can go without crossing the boundary into hot war. Repeated attacks on physical infrastructure, such as pipelines, electrical networks, and communications systems, might easily come to be seen in hot war terms. So too could cyber-attacks on political processes, particularly elections, which raise the profile of the democratic-authoritarian divide. AI itself could easily become part of a Second Cold War arms race, with both sides highly motivated to dominate cyberspace. If pushed to its full potential, cyberwar could become a big threat to social, political, and economic order.

A second difference between the First and Second Cold Wars concerns the impact of environmental issues. The First Cold War was little affected by concerns about climate change. Its main connection was the fear discovered in the 1980s that a nuclear war between the superpowers could trigger a ‘nuclear winter’ (Sagan 1983/4; Nye 1986). The Second Cold War is opening just at the point where environmental constraints are bringing two centuries of ruthless and unconstrained pursuit of wealth and power to an end. The accelerating momentum of global warming now threatens humankind with a wide range of consequences which, if not addressed adequately, will disrupt the conditions on which human civilisation depends.

Environmental pressures could exacerbate the Second Cold War by triggering blame games, mass migrations, and a struggle to control the remaining habitable spaces. Dalby (2020), for example, foresees a merger of climate politics and geopolitics. Or the shared threat could mitigate the Second Cold War, overriding its boundary problems, and pushing international society into a more cooperative mode. Only when the consequences of climate change become severe enough will this question be answered. Either way, climate change is a large factor for the Second Cold War that barely impacted on the First.

The Second Cold War is, in the long view, about how multiple powers and cultures can coexist on more or less equal terms. It is not about who dominates the world. It is about how to reconfigure the rules, statuses, and institutions of global society to reflect the power transition from a narrow, mainly Western, core group of powers, to a world in which there are several centres of wealth, power, and political and cultural authority. Its main issue is over disputed boundaries of spheres of influence between different powers and cultures. Its basic driving force is therefore potentially self-limiting and defensive, rather than hegemonic.

As in the First Cold War, the Second will be marked by an abiding fear that disputes over boundaries might escalate into hot war. This applies to the contested boundaries between China and the US; Russia and Europe; and China and India, Japan, and Southeast Asia. If boundary disputes are misunderstood as the opening rounds in a zero-sum contest for global domination, then there is a danger that the Second Cold War will become more like the First. If China sees the US as trying to retain hegemony, and the US sees China as trying to displace it as a global hegemon, the Second Cold War will become much more strongly contested than its underlying dynamics justify.


I have shown how cold wars are a distinct type of war that differs from hot ones, and why those differences matter to how we understand the current major transition from a Western-dominated world order to a deep pluralist one. The necessary conditions for cold war only came into being with the development of WMD during the twentieth century meaning that there are no cold wars before then. The First Cold War did much to define the general type, but it did not draw a precise template that all other cold wars must fit. Halliday (1983: 19–23) was right that we should expect cold wars to be both similar and different. The appropriate analogy here is with the First and Second World Wars, both types of global hot war, yet both similar and different in their characteristics and details.

It would, in my view, be wasteful to confine use of an important, and increasingly relevant, concept to the single case of 1947–89. Cold wars are likely to be a central feature of world politics in the coming decades. I have argued that we are already in the early phases of a Second Cold War and have sketched out in some detail what the driving dynamics of it are. I have shown how they differ from those of the First and why those differences do not disturb understanding both as cold wars.

One advantage of generalising the idea of cold wars, and framing current developments as a Second Cold War, is that it constructs the basis for a long perspective. Cold wars tend to be durable. Understanding their structure therefore gives a way of thinking ahead. That opens up not only an academic research agenda about cold wars in general, but also a policy agenda for practitioners concerning the Second Cold War within which they now find themselves.

All of this needs more discussion and research.

  • Is there a better definition of cold war than the one I have offered?

  • Am I right to take a strong line on cold war being a type of war? This argument would look very different if cold war was not seen as a type of war.

  • Should limited war be an intermediate category between hot and cold in the typology of war?

  • Are there criteria additional to geopolitics for identifying the start of cold wars?

  • What are the causes of cold wars? The First Cold War developed out of the breakdown of a victorious alliance. The Second Cold War may be more complex, involving both general and specific power transitions, and the particularities of domestic politics in three of the principal great powers: the US, China and Russia.

  • Are regional cold wars free-standing, or linked to global ones? Are there particular features of regions, such as proximity to a great power rivalry, that matter?

  • What determines responses in the periphery to a cold war at the global level? Why do states not directly involved choose alignment, non-alignment, or combinations of the two?

  • What role do non-state actors play in cold wars, both independently and as allies of states? Are non-state actors more likely to be major players in cold wars as compared with hot ones?

  • If cold wars tend to be long, is there a danger that they become embedded as durable structures? Is that danger likely to be exacerbated by the particular qualities of cyberwar now emerging?

By detaching cold war from the model of 1947–89, my argument has several implications for contemporary policymakers. First, is that they need to understand, and manage as best as possible, the boundary disputes and status issues that underlie the Second Cold War. The boundary issues are not equivalent to the struggle for system dominance that framed the First Cold War. They could, in principle, be negotiated in a way that the zero-sum ideological contest of the First Cold War could not. But these boundary disputes are still things worth fighting over, and if mishandled, they could tip global society into local hot wars, and possibly global ones. They also interact delicately with the democratic-authoritarian divide and its associated cultural differences. Acceptance of coexistence will make the boundary questions more tractable. Pushing a zero-sum line will intensify them.

Second, policymakers need to monitor the relationship between cyberwar and cold war. The Second Cold War may be the proving ground for the interplay of cyberwar and cold war. Here, the main danger is that the permanent and intimate engagement of cyberwar could underpin a permanent cold war.

Third, policymakers on all sides need to be more aware of status issues than has been the case so far. The status aspirations of rising powers in the global power transition require fuller acknowledgement from the West than has been forthcoming so far. The global distribution of wealth, power, and political and cultural authority has already changed in a deep and durable way, and will continue to do so. The era of Western domination is over. Many of the institutional structures of global international society erected during that time are obsolete and need to be reformed or replaced. Yet while the West might be in relative decline, it is not going away as an important part of the core. It too has legitimate status needs in the deep pluralist order.

The Global South needs to turn its attention more towards how a deep pluralist world order can and should manage itself. It needs to obsess less about how the world was mismanaged in the past. Many of those opposing Western/US hegemony have called for a more multipolar world. Now they are getting their wish, and it is time for them to step up with some ideas about how they want that world to be run. The issues of the past do need to be addressed, and the contributions and culpabilities of both sides made clear and accepted. But if that backward-looking policy of grievance and victimhood dominates world politics going forward, it is a recipe for a long and grim Second Cold War. A world increasingly dominated by shared-fate planetary issues such as climate change and global pandemics, and needing to find ways of making development sustainable, cannot just be left to its own devices.

The question of how cold wars end is an important one for both academics and practitioners. Like hot wars, cold ones can end in victory or defeat, as the First Cold War did. Or they can escalate into hot wars. Or they can give way to a more coexistence or even cooperative form of global society in which the problem of war recedes. Before any of these outcomes, cold wars can simply be long. The First one lasted for over four decades. We may have a long way to go in the Second.

Neither winning nor losing look to be likely outcomes for the Second Cold War. Wealth and power are too widely diffused, and cultural identities are much less prone to collapse than ideological ones. The rest will rise, but Europe, the US and Japan will not disappear as major powers and major cultures.

There are various scenarios for how the Second Cold War could turn hot. Power transition theory (Organski and Kugler 1980; Kennedy 1989; Knudsen 2022) generally assumes that such transitions will usually trigger hot wars as they often did before 1945. But the First Cold War was fought to a clear outcome, suggesting that hot war is not an inevitable outcome of power transitions when they are mediated by a strong defence dilemma.

Nevertheless, it is easy to see paths to hot war even in the early years of the Second Cold War. Escalations from particularly tense boundary disputes are the most obvious route. Taiwan and Korea have long been understood as such flashpoints, and Ukraine is now added to that set. Afghanistan may be unique in that none of its neighbours wish to incorporate it into their civilisational sphere, and in that sense, it is not so dangerous. Other kinds of escalation scenarios might arise from the mounting pressures driven by climate change (Welzer 2012; Wallace-Wells 2019). But if we get to that point, then most hopes for world order will already have evaporated. With the possible exception of those supporting Putin, most leaderships in great powers understand that turning the Second Cold War into a hot one would be a disaster with no winners and many losers.

The pathways, out of a world defined by war, are fewer, narrower, and steeper. In principle, the drift towards a deep pluralist world could generate a dynamic of coexistence and cooperation, but that would probably take a long time. More likely, but far from certain, is that the rising pressure from shared-fate threats, most obviously climate change, will force the evolution of a more cooperative global society. For that to happen, the effects of climate change would have to become so severe as to make it the dominant focus of securitisation globally. So far there has been little sign of such a move (Scott 2022). Climate change could just as easily feed into humankind’s apparent preference for prioritising threats from other humans, rather than to those that threaten humankind as a whole.

We are in a Second Cold War, and understanding that opens the way to calculating the policy paths towards the outcomes we prefer. There is not much chance of a win-lose outcome. There is some risk of escalation to hot war, though probably less than during the First Cold War when nuclear weapons systems were themselves unstable. The possibility of a shift to coexistence looks remote unless climate change pushes things in that direction.

What looks entirely plausible is that the Second Cold War will endure. Policymakers will need to manage it as best they can, and by understanding its nature and dynamics, steer it towards a soft landing. By the end of it, we should have a clear idea of what the world order following two centuries of Western domination looks like. We should also have a better idea of how the rise of cold war has displaced hot war in the dynamics of world politics.