What Is Imperialism? Definition and Historical Perspective

Political cartoon depicting imperialism as a group of men eating cakes with the names of countries on them

Getty Images / ilbusca

Imperialism, sometimes called empire building, is the practice of a nation forcefully imposing its rule or authority over other nations. Typically involving the unprovoked use of military force, imperialism has historically been viewed as morally unacceptable. As a result, accusations of imperialism—factual or not—are often used in propaganda denouncing a nation’s foreign policy.

Imperialism

  • Imperialism is the expansion of a nation’s authority over other nations through the acquisition of land and/or the imposition of economic and political domination.
  • The Age of Imperialism is typified by the colonization of the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries, as well as the expansion of the United States, Japan, and the European powers during the late 19th and early 20th century.
  • Throughout history, many indigenous societies and cultures have been destroyed by imperialistic expansion.

Periods of Imperialism

Imperialistic take-overs have been happening all over the world for hundreds of years, one of the most notable examples being the colonization of America. While the colonization of the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries differed in nature from the expansion of the United States, Japan, and the European powers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both periods are examples of imperialism.

Imperialism has evolved since the struggles between prehistoric clans for scarce food and resources, but it has retained its bloody roots. Throughout history, many cultures suffered under the domination of their imperialist conquerors, with many indigenous societies being unintentionally or deliberately destroyed.

Five Theories Used to Justify Imperialistic Expansion

A broader definition of imperialism is the extension or expansion—usually by the use of military force—of a nation’s authority or rule over territories not currently under its control. This is accomplished through the direct acquisition of land and/or economic and political domination.

Empires do not undertake the expenses and dangers of imperialistic expansion without what their leaders consider to be ample justification. Throughout recorded history, imperialism has been rationalized under one or more of the following five theories.

Conservative Economic Theory

The better-developed nation sees imperialism as a means of maintaining its already successful economy and stable social order. By securing new captive markets for its exported goods, the dominant nation is able to sustain its employment rate and redirect any social disputes of its urban populations into its colonial territories. Historically, this rationale embodies an assumption of ideological and racial superiority within the dominant nation.

Liberal Economic Theory

Growing wealth and capitalism in the dominant nation results in the production of more goods than its population can consume. Its leaders see imperialist expansion as a way to reduce its expenses while increasing its profits by balancing production and consumption. As an alternative to imperialism, the wealthier nation sometimes chooses to solve its under-consumption problem internally through liberal legislative means such as wage control.

Marxist-Leninist Economic Theory

Socialist leaders like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin rejected liberal legislative strategies dealing with under-consumption because they would inevitably take money away from the dominant state’s middle class and result in a world divided into wealthy and poor countries. Lenin cited capitalist-imperialist aspirations as the cause of World War I and called for the adoption of a Marxist form of imperialism instead.

Political Theory

Imperialism is no more than an inevitable result of the attempt of wealthy nations to maintain their positions in the world’s balance of power. This theory holds that the actual purpose of imperialism is to minimize a nation’s military and political vulnerability.

The Warrior Class Theory

Imperialism actually serves no real economic or political purpose. Instead, it is a pointless manifestation of the age-old behavior of nations whose political processes have become dominated by a “warrior” class. Originally created to satisfy an actual need for national defense, the warrior class eventually manufactures crises that can only be dealt with through imperialism in order to perpetuate its existence.

The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes
The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes. Edward Linley Sambourne / Public Domain

Imperialism vs. Colonialism 

While imperialism and colonialism both result in the political and economic domination of one nation over others, there are subtle but important differences between the two systems.

In essence, colonialism is the physical practice of global expansion, while imperialism is the idea that drives this practice. In a basic cause-and-effect relationship, imperialism can be thought of as the cause and colonialism as the effect.

In its most familiar form, colonialism involves the relocation of people to a new territory as permanent settlers. Once established, the settlers maintain their loyalty and allegiance to their mother country while working to harness the new territory’s resources for the economic benefit of that country. In contrast, imperialism is simply the imposition of political and economic control over a conquered nation or nations through the use of military force and violence.

For example, the British colonization of America during the 16th and 17th centuries evolved into imperialism when King George III stationed British troops in the colonies to enforce ever more restrictive economic and political regulations imposed on the colonists. Objections to Britain’s growingly imperialistic actions eventually resulted in the American Revolution.   

The Age of Imperialism

The Age of Imperialism spanned the year 1500 all the way to 1914. During the early 15th to the late 17th century, European powers such as England, Spain, France, Portugal, and Holland acquired vast colonial empires. During this period of “Old Imperialism,” the European nations explored the New World seeking trade routes to the Far East and—often violently—establishing settlements in North and South America as well as in Southeast Asia. It was during this period that some of imperialism’s worst human atrocities took place.

During the Spanish Conquistadors’ conquest of Central and South America in the 16th century, an estimated eight million indigenous people died in the era of imperialism’s first large-scale act of genocide. 

Map of the world’s empires in 1898
Imperial Powers in 1898. Wikimedia Commons

Based on their belief in the conservative economic theory of “Glory, God, and Gold,” trade-motivated imperialists of this period saw colonialism as purely a source of wealth and vehicle for religious missionary efforts. The early British Empire established one of its most profitable colonies in North America. Despite suffering a setback in the loss of its American colonies in 1776, Britain more than recovered by gaining territory in India, Australia, and Latin America.

By the end of the age of Old Imperialism in the 1840s, Great Britain had become the dominant colonial power with territorial holdings in India, South Africa, and Australia. At the same time, France controlled the Louisiana territory in North America as well as French New Guinea. Holland had colonized the East Indies and Spain had colonized Central and South America. Due largely to its mighty navy’s dominance of the seas, Britain also readily accepted its role as keeper of world peace, later described as Pax Britannica or “British Peace.”  

The Age of New Imperialism

While the European empires established footholds on the coasts of Africa and China following the first wave of imperialism, their influence over local leaders was limited. Not until the “Age of New Imperialism” had started in the 1870s did the European states begin to establish their vast empires—mainly in Africa, but also in Asia and the Middle East.

Cartoon of European powers dividing a pie of China
New Imperialism and its effects on China. Henri Meyer - Bibliothèque nationale de France

Driven by their need to deal with the over-production and under-consumption economic consequences of the Industrial Revolution, the European nations pursued an aggressive plan of empire building. Instead of merely setting up overseas trading settlements as they had during the 16th and 17th centuries, the new imperialists controlled the local colonial governments for their own benefit.

The rapid advances in industrial production, technology, and transportation during the “Second Industrial Revolution” between 1870 and 1914 further boosted the economies of the European powers and thus their need for overseas expansion. As typified by the political theory of imperialism, the new imperialists employed policies that stressed their perceived superiority over “backward” nations. Combining the establishment of economic influence and political annexation with overwhelming military force, the European countries—led by the juggernaut British Empire—proceeded to dominate most of Africa and Asia.

By 1914, along with its successes in the so-called “Scramble for Africa,” the British Empire controlled the largest number of colonies worldwide, leading to the popular phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

U.S. Annexation of Hawaii

One of the best recognized, if controversial, examples of American imperialism came with the nation's 1898 annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii as a territory. Throughout most of the 1800s, the U.S. government worried that Hawaii, a key mid-Pacific whaling and trade port—fertile ground for American protestant missions, and most of all, a rich new source of sugar from sugar cane production—would fall under European rule. Indeed, during the 1930s, both Britain and France forced Hawaii to accept exclusionary trade treaties with them.

In 1842, U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster reached an agreement with Hawaiian agents in Washington to oppose the annexation of Hawaii by any other nation. In 1849, a treaty of friendship served as the basis of official long-term relations between the United States and Hawaii. By 1850, sugar was the source of 75% of Hawaii’s wealth. As Hawaii’s economy became increasingly dependent on the United States, a trade reciprocity treaty signed in 1875 further linked the two countries. In 1887, American growers and businessmen forced King Kalākaua to sign a new constitution stripping him of power and suspending the rights of many native Hawaiians.

In 1893, King Kalākaua’s successor, Queen Lili’uokalani, introduced a new constitution that restored her power and Hawaiian rights. Fearing that Lili’uokalani would impose devastating tariffs on American-produced sugar, American cane growers led by Samuel Dole plotted to depose her and seek the annexation of the islands by the United States. On January 17, 1893, sailors from the USS Boston, dispatched by U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, surrounded the ʻIolani Palace in Honolulu and removed Queen Lili’uokalani. U.S. Minister John Stevens was recognized as the islands’ de facto governor, with Samuel Dole as president of the Provisional Government of Hawaii.

In 1894, Dole sent a delegation to Washington officially seeking annexation. However, President Grover Cleveland opposed the idea and threatened to restore Queen Lili’uokalani as monarch. In response, Dole declared Hawaii an independent republic. In a rush of nationalism fueled by the Spanish-American War, the United States, at the urging of President William McKinley, annexed Hawaii in 1898. At the same time, the native Hawaiian language was entirely banned from schools and government proceedings. In 1900, Hawaii became a U.S. territory and Dole was its first governor.

Demanding the same rights and representation of U.S. citizens in the then-48 states, native Hawaiians and non-white Hawaiian residents began to push for statehood. Nearly 60 years later, Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state on August 21, 1959. In 1987, the U.S. Congress restored Hawaiian as the state’s official language, and in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a bill apologizing for the U.S. role in the 1893 overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani. 

The Decline of Classic Imperialism

While generally profitable, imperialism, combined with nationalism, began to have negative consequences for European empires, their colonies, and the world. By 1914, an increasing number of conflicts between competing nations would erupt into World War I. By the 1940s, former World War I participants Germany and Japan, regaining their imperialistic power, sought to create empires across Europe and Asia, respectively. Driven by their desires to expand their nations’ spheres of world influence, Hitler of Germany and Emperor Hirohito of Japan would join forces to launch World War II.

The tremendous human and economic costs of World War II greatly weakened the old empire-building nations, effectively ending the age of classic, trade-driven imperialism. Throughout the ensuing delicate peace and Cold War, decolonization proliferated. India along with several former colonial territories in Africa gained independence from Britain.

While a scaled-back version of British imperialism continued with its involvement in the Iranian coup d’état of 1953 and in Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis, it was the United States and the former Soviet Union that emerged from World War II as the world’s dominant superpowers.

However, the ensuing Cold War from 1947 to 1991 would take a massive toll on the Soviet Union. With its economy drained, its military might a thing of the past, and its communist political structure fractured, the Soviet Union officially dissolved and emerged as the Russian Federation on December 26, 1991. As part of the dissolution agreement, the several colonial or “satellite” states of the Soviet empire were granted independence. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States became the dominant global power and source of modern imperialism.

Examples of Modern Imperialism

No longer focused strictly on securing new trading opportunities, modern imperialism involves the expansion of corporate presence and the spreading of the dominant nation’s political ideology in a process sometimes pejoratively called “nation-building” or, specifically in the case of the United States, “Americanization.”

Cartoon of belligerent Uncle Sam placing Spain on notice, c. 1898
Uncle Sam Placing Spain on Notice in 1898.  Independence Seaport Museum / Public Domain

As proven by the domino theory of the Cold War, powerful nations like the United States often attempt to block other nations from adopting political ideologies counter to their own. As a result, the United States’ failed 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion attempt to overthrow the communist regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba, President Ronald Regan’s Reagan Doctrine intended to stop the spread of communism, and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War are often cited as examples of modern imperialism.

Aside from the United States, other prosperous nations have employed modern—and occasionally traditional—imperialism in hopes of expanding their influence. Using a combination of hyper-aggressive foreign policy and limited military intervention, countries like Saudi Arabia and China have sought to spread their global influence. In addition, smaller nations like Iran and North Korea have been aggressively building their military capabilities—including nuclear weapons—in hopes of gaining an economic and strategic advantage. 

While the United States’ true colonial holdings have declined since the era of traditional imperialism, the nation still exerts a strong and growing economic and political influence on many parts of the world. The U.S. currently retains five permanently populated traditional territories or commonwealths: Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa.

All five territories elect a non-voting member to the U.S. House of Representatives. Residents of American Samoa are considered U.S. nationals and residents of the other four territories are U.S. citizens. These U.S. citizens are allowed to vote in primary elections for president but cannot vote in the general presidential election.

Historically, most former U.S. territories, such as Hawaii and Alaska, eventually attained statehood. Other territories including the Philippines, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, held mainly for strategic purposes during World War II, eventually became independent countries. 

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