Imperialism is a controversial topic that has been debated for centuries. Some people view it as a positive force that can bring about change and progress, while others see it as an aggressive act that violates the sovereignty of other nations. No matter what side of the debate you are on, there can be no denying that imperialistic actions have significantly impacted the world.
- Imperialism is a system where one nation controls others through economic and political power. This can be done through the acquisition of land or by forcing other nations to comply with their demands.
- Between the 15th and 19th centuries, many European nations colonized America. This period is known as the “Age of Imperialism.” Also, during the late 19th and early 20th century, the US, Japan, and some European countries expanded their territories.
- Indigenous societies and cultures have been under threat for centuries from imperialistic expansion. This has led to the loss of many unique customs and traditions.
Imperialism has been a part of the world for centuries, with various countries taking over others for land or resources. The colonization of America is one of the most well-known examples of this. While Europeans’ colonization of the Americas differed in some ways from the later expansion of the United States, Japan, and other powers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both periods are examples of imperialism.
It has its roots in the struggles of prehistoric clans for scarce resources, but it has taken many different forms throughout history. Native peoples have often been the victims of imperialistic conquest, unintentionally or deliberately destroying their cultures.
In ancient times, China, western Asia, and Mediterranean countries were all ruled by empires that rose and fell in succession. Around the 6th to 4th century BCE, for example, the Assyrian Empire was replaced by the Persian Empire–a more tolerant regime that lasted longer.
When Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, invaded Persia in 334 BCE, he brought a new way of thinking that would change history. His vision of a cosmopolitan world in which all citizens lived together harmoniously remained a dream until it was partially realized when Rome built its empire from Britain to Egypt.
The fall of Rome in 476 BCE marked the end of an era of imperial unity. In its place, a more fragmented world emerged, with various European and Asian nations pursuing their imperialist policies. This division would characterize the modern world, as imperialism became a force for separation rather than unification.
There have been periods where various empires have expanded their territory through imperialism and colonialism. In more recent times, this has occurred in three distinct eras.
From the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, England, France, Portugal, Spain, and Holland built their empires in America, India, and East Indies. However, this was met with strong opposition from many people, which led to a calmer period in terms of empire-building. Then from the nineteenth century until World War I in 1914-1918, there was another resurgence of imperialism.
Imperialism has taken many forms, from direct military intervention to indirect financial control. After World War I, the promise of a peaceful world inspired by the League of Nations brought a brief pause to imperialism. However, it was not long before Japan renewed its empire-building in 1931 with an invasion of China. Japan and Italy led this new period of imperialism in the 1930s and 1940s under Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party, Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.
Imperialistic Expansion: Five Theories
Imperialism is the extension or expansion of one nation’s authority by military force over another. This can be done either through the direct acquisition of land or by economic and political domination.
Empires only expand their territory and influence when they believe there is good reason to do so. Throughout history, various justifications have been given for imperialistic expansion. Here are five of the most common theories.
The wealthy nation’s leaders see imperialist expansion as a way to reduce expenses while increasing 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.
Many nations see imperialism as a way to maintain their already successful economies and stable social orders. By securing new markets for their exported goods, these nations can sustain high employment rates and redirect any social disputes at home into their colonial territories. This rationale is often based on an assumption of ideological and racial superiority within the dominant nation.
Socialist leaders such as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin believed that liberal legislative strategies designed to address under-consumption would ultimately take money away from the middle class in developed countries and result in a world divided between wealthy and poor nations. Lenin attributed the outbreak of World War I to capitalist-imperialist aspirations and called for the adoption of a Marxist form of imperialism instead.
Wealthy nations will always try to maintain their positions in the world’s balance of power, through politics, diplomacy, and inevitably leading to imperialistic behavior. This theory suggests that the real reason for this behavior is to reduce a nation’s vulnerability to military and political threats.
Imperialism manifests the age-old behavior of nations whose political processes have become dominated by a “warrior” class. The warrior class creates crises that can only be dealt with through imperialistic actions to perpetuate its existence. Imperialism serves no real economic or political purpose, but the warrior class benefits greatly.
Imperialism vs. Colonialism
Imperialism and colonialism are two very different systems. Imperialism is the idea that one nation should dominate others politically and economically, whereas colonialism is the physical practice of expanding one’s territory. In a cause-and-effect relationship, imperialism would be the cause, and colonialism would be the effect.
Colonialism involves the relocation of people to a new territory as permanent settlers. At the same time, imperialism is the imposition of political and economic control over a conquered nation through military force and violence.
The British colonization of America during the 16th and 17th centuries was a time of significant change. The colonies were growing and evolving, and so was the relationship between Britain and the colonists. This relationship eventually became one of imperialism, with Britain imposing ever more restrictive economic and political regulations on the colonists. Objections to these actions eventually led to the American Revolution.
The Age of Imperialism
During Old Imperialism, many European nations such as Spain, France, Portugal, England, and Holland acquired vast colonial empires. These nations explored new lands in search of trade routes to East Asia and often violently established settlements in North and South America and Southeast Asia. This period was marked by some of imperialism’s worst human atrocities.
The Spanish Conquistadors were responsible for the death of millions of indigenous people in Central and South America in the 16th century. This was one of the most notable acts of genocide in history, profoundly impacting the indigenous cultures of the Americas.
The early British Empire was motivated by a desire for wealth and power and a belief that colonialism would spread Christianity. This established profitable colonies in North America, India, Australia, and Latin America. Although losing the American colonies was a setback, Britain quickly regained its footing by expanding its empire elsewhere.
In the early 1800s, many European countries established colonies in various parts of the world. Among these was Great Britain, which quickly became a dominant force in India, South Africa, and Australia. France also had many colonies, including the Louisiana territory in North America and French New Guinea. Holland controlled the East Indies, while Spain colonized Central and South America. Due to its strong navy, Britain often took on the role of maintaining peace throughout the world, later known as Pax Britannica or “British Peace.”
New Imperialism Age
As the European empires established their presence in Africa and China, they quickly realized their influence over local leaders was limited. It was not until the “Age of New Imperialism” started in the 1870s that European states began to establish their vast empires—mainly in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
The European nations, seeking to mitigate the economic consequences of the Industrial Revolution, aggressively pursued an empire-building policy. Rather than simply establishing overseas trading settlements as they had during the 16th and 17th centuries, the new imperialists took control of local colonial governments for their benefit.
During what is now known as the “Second Industrial Revolution,” various factors such as industrial production, technology, and transportation rapidly advanced. This caused the economies of European powers to grow, which in turn led to a need for these nations to expand their territory overseas. A political theory called imperialism arose during this time, which held that it was justified for more prosperous and developed countries to take over less advanced ones. To do this, they would use a combination of economic pressure and political annexation, as well as a military force. With Great Britain in the lead, European countries colonized most of Africa and Asia using these methods.
The British Empire was once the largest and most powerful empire in the world. With colonies stretching across the globe, it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” But all empires must come to an end, and 1914 marked the beginning of the end for the British Empire.
The United States has a long history of imperialism, exemplified by the nation’s annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1898. Throughout most of the 1800s, the Hawaiian Islands were a key mid-Pacific trade port and a rich source of sugar from sugar cane production. The U.S. government worried that European powers would take control of Hawaii and forced the country to accept exclusionary trade treaties with Britain and France in the 1930s.
The Hawaiian Islands have long been a destination for many people worldwide. With its sandy beaches, gentle waves, and beautiful scenery, it is no wonder the United States annexed it in 1842. However, before this could happen, Secretary of State Daniel Webster agreed with Hawaiian agents to prevent any other nation from annexing Hawaii. This treaty served as the basis of official relations between the two countries for many years.
By 1850, sugar had become the primary source of income for Hawaii. The economy was becoming increasingly dependent on the United States, which led to a trade reciprocity treaty being signed between the two countries. However, American growers and businesspeople forced King Kalakaua to sign a new constitution that stripped him of his power and rights. These actions led to many native Hawaiians being oppressed and without a voice.
When Queen Lili’uokalani came to power, she quickly began to reverse the policies of her predecessor King Kalākaua. This included restoring Hawaiian rights and imposing tariffs on American sugar growers. Fearing their business would be destroyed, a group of American businessmen led by Samuel Dole plotted to overthrow Lili’uokalani and make Hawaii a part of the United States.
On January 17, 1893, sailors from the USS Boston surrounded ʻIolani Palace and removed the queen. U.S. Minister John Stevens became the islands’ de facto governor, with Samuel Dole as president of the Provisional Government of Hawaii.
The annexation of Hawaii by the United States has been controversial since it occurred. Some argue that the annexation was illegal and that Hawaii should be an independent nation. Others argue that the annexation was necessary and beneficial for Hawaii and the United States.
Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1900, and Dole was its first governor. However, before this, there was much debate over whether or not Hawaii should be annexed. President Grover Cleveland opposed the idea of annexation, threatened to restore Queen Lili’uokalani as monarch, and sent a delegation to Washington to officially lobby against it. Dole responded by declaring Hawaii an independent republic, but this did not last long.
Native Hawaiians and other non-white residents of Hawaii began pushing for statehood in the early 1900s. Their goal was to achieve the same rights and representation as citizens in the mainland United States. Nearly 60 years later, their efforts paid off when 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.
Classic Imperialism: The Decline
The desire to expand one’s nation’s sphere of world influence often leads to imperialistic tendencies, which, in turn, can have negative consequences for both the empire and its colonies. This was the case in 1914 when several conflicts between competing nations led to World War I. By the 1940s, former World War I participants Germany and Japan had regained their power and sought to create empires of their own. This desire for expansion led Hitler of Germany and Emperor Hirohito of Japan to join forces and launch World War II.
As World War II came to a close, it became evident that empire-building nations were no longer as powerful as they once were. This newfound weakness led to decolonization, which allowed formerly colonized countries like India and various African nations to gain independence from their former imperial masters. Throughout this delicate period of peace and Cold War tensions, decolonization spread, weakening empires even further.
The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the world’s dominant superpowers after World War II, overshadowing Britain’s continued involvement in imperialism. The 1953 Iranian coup d’etat and the 1956 Suez Crisis were scaled-back versions of British imperialism, but the U.S. and USSR held the most power in the world.
The Cold War had a devastating effect on the Soviet Union. Its economy was drained, its military power was destroyed, and its communist political structure collapsed. The Soviet Union officially dissolved on December 26, 1991, and several satellite states were granted independence. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States became the dominant global power.
Modern Imperialism Examples
Imperialism is often seen as a thing of the past, but it is very much alive and well in the modern day. Rather than being focused solely on securing new trading opportunities, contemporary imperialism involves expanding corporate presence and spreading the dominant nation’s political ideology. This process is sometimes pejoratively referred to as “nation-building” or, specifically in the case of the United States, “Americanization.”
Different political ideologies often clash, with powerful nations sometimes trying to prevent others from adopting ideologies counter to their own. This can be seen in the United States failed 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion attempt to overthrow communist Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, President Ronald Reagan’s Reagan Doctrine aimed at halting the spread of communism, and America’s involvement in the Vietnam War – all examples of modern imperialism.
The United States is not the only country to pursue modern imperialism to expand its influence. Saudi Arabia and China have used aggressive foreign policy and limited military intervention to achieve their goals. Smaller nations like Iran and North Korea have built up their military capabilities—including nuclear weapons—to gain an economic and strategic advantage.
Although the United States no longer has any colonies in the traditional sense, it continues to exert substantial economic and political influence on many parts of the world. The U.S. still controls the five permanently populated territories, or commonwealths Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa.
While residents of American Samoa are considered U.S. nationals, and residents of the other four territories are U.S. citizens, neither group is allowed to vote in the general presidential election. However, both groups are allowed to vote in primary elections for president.
Many former U.S. territories have become states, such as Hawaii and Alaska. However, some have become independent countries, such as the Philippines, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. These latter territories were mainly acquired for strategic purposes during World War II.