The Role of Imperialism

How Imperialism Impacts the Economy, War, and Climate Change

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Imperialism is the policy or act of extending a country’s power into other territories or gaining control over another country’s politics or economics. Learn about the impact imperialism has had on economics, climate change, and war.

What Is Imperialism?

According to early 20th-century economist J.A. Hobson in his book “Imperialism: A Study,” history has shown that imperialism often exploits the conquered country’s resources and that may be the economic justification for creating an empire by controlling other nations.

The word “imperialism” comes from the Latin term imperium, meaning to command. It can be done through settlement, sovereignty, or some indirect mechanisms of control.

It views economics as a “zero-sum” game in which there is a finite amount of riches in the world. This theory contends that for one to become richer, someone else must become poorer. It justifies expansion by force with a belief in social Darwinism, or “survival of the fittest.”

Despite theories that may be used to justify it, imperialism is simply the raw exercise of power. This was described by author Joseph Conrad in his 1902 novel “Heart of Darkness” in relation to the early Roman Empire: "...[S]ince your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could for the sake of what was to be got."

U.S. Imperialism

In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine asserted that the U.S. would defend the Americas against European imperialism. It laid the foundation for ongoing U.S. interference in the Western Hemisphere.

For example, in 1898, the Spanish-American War ended Spain’s colonial empire in the Western Hemisphere. Spain ended its claims on Cuba and the U.S. took over rights to Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.  It defeated Philippine nationalists a few years later. It still has not allowed Puerto Rico to become an independent nation or a full state of the Union, although its people are U.S. citizens.

Imperialism vs. Colonialism

  • Gaining control over another country's politics

  • Can occur without sending settlers

  • Gaining control over people 

  • Often involves settlers from a foreign county

Colonialism means control by one power over a dependent area or people, often involving the implanting of settlers in a foreign country. It comes from the Latin word colonus, meaning farmer. The settlers intend to live in the dominated country permanently but keep their allegiance to their country of origin.

Colonialism first occurred during the ancient Greek, Roman, and Ottoman empires. In the 16th century, it expanded globally due to improved ships. They made it feasible to move large groups of colonists from one country to another and subjugate the colonized population.

Many people use imperialism and colonialism interchangeably, but they are not the same. 

Imperialism can occur without colonialism if the invading country does not send settlers. Imperialism is the way that one country exercises power over another through various methods of control.

For example, in the late 19th century, Europeans expanded their empires in Africa without intending to fully colonize it. That doesn't diminish the devastating effect imperialism had on Africa, however. The American expansion into the Philippines and Puerto Rico also did not include colonization.  

Imperialism vs. Mercantilism

  • Gaining control over another country's politics and/or economy

  • Exploits conquered country's resources

  • Exerting control over international trade

  • The government strengthens merchants

Mercantilism is an economic theory that advocates government regulation of international trade to generate wealth and strengthen national power. Merchants and the government work together to reduce the trade deficit and create a surplus.

In this model, the government strengthens merchants. It establishes monopolies, grants tax-free status, grants pensions to favored industries, and imposes tariffs on imports. In return, businesses funnel the riches from foreign expansion back to their governments. Domestic business taxes pay for continuous national growth and increased political power. Mercantilism is a form of economic nationalism that advocates trade policies that protect domestic industries. 

Imperialism vs. Capitalism

  • Gaining control over another country's politics and/or economy

  • Exploits conquered country's resources

  • Invests in developing countries to sell goods and exploit resources

  • Requires a market economy

  • May lead to imperialism

Many critics argue that imperialism is an outgrowth of capitalism. Hobson said that capitalist societies produce too much for their own economies to purchase. Businesses don't pay their workers enough to absorb excess supply. As a result, they invest in developing countries and seek to sell their goods and exploit natural resources. Businesses lean on their governments to protect their own interests.

Marxist philosopher Vladimir Lenin also argued that imperialism was a form of late-stage capitalism. It always led to powerful monopolies that were forced to expand their empires by seizing colonies and creating dependencies to serve as markets, investment outlets, and sources of food and raw materials.

But others argue that capitalism alone doesn't always lead to imperialism. Capitalism occurs when the factors of production—entrepreneurship, capital goods, natural resources, and labor—are not owned by the government. The owners receive an income from their property. 

Capitalism requires a market economy. The market sets prices and distributes goods and services according to the laws of supply and demand. The law of demand says that a product price rises when demand for it increases. When competitors realize they can make a higher profit, they increase production. This can also attract more businesses. The greater supply reduces prices to a level where only the best competitors remain. But in a pure free market, these competitors won't stay on top unless they continue to innovate and increase efficiency.

There are many examples of non-capitalistic countries that exhibit imperialism. In 1951, Communist China forcibly annexed Tibet to develop its resources and it sent Chinese volunteers to colonize it. China has also invested billions in extracting resources in African nations, taking natural resources in the "partnership" without developing the local communities.

Imperialism and World War I

Between 1870 and 1900, European countries seized around 9 million square miles of territory in Africa and Asia, a fifth of the world's landmass. About 150 million people were subjected to imperialism during that time.

This European imperialism caused World War I. Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, and Great Britain had relied on imperialism to build their wealth. The Austro-Hungarian Empire included countries in southeastern Europe bordering Russia. Germany's empire included the formerly French regions of Alsace and Lorraine, and Germany's and Italy's empires included countries in Africa.

On the Allied side, the Russian Empire included most of eastern Europe, including Serbia. The British Empire had countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and the French Empire had Vietnam and most of northern Africa. The Allies felt threatened when Germany and Austria-Hungary took over small countries like Bosnia and Morocco.

In addition, nationalism was increasing among conquered nations before World War I. Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks, especially, were tired of being a minority in the Austro-Hungarian and German empires. Serbian nationalists wanted to end Austro-Hungarian rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Nationalism is a system created by people who believe their nation is superior to all others. Most often, this sense of superiority has its roots in a shared ethnicity. 

When a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which brought in Russia and, ultimately, the other Allies. They resorted to militarism to protect their empires and the results were devastating.

Imperialism and Climate Change

Imperialism also has contributed to climate change, as nature is viewed as nothing more than a resource to be exploited for the lowest price possible. In a zero-sum economy, if businesses in the developed world are to prosper, then someone else must suffer through diminished resources or pollution, for example. 

In capitalism, the owners seek to lower costs and improve efficiencies. The free market rewards producers with the lowest costs. But governments have displaced the true costs of fossil fuels through subsidies. That fact exports the cost of higher greenhouse gases to society at large. Everyone is affected, either directly or indirectly, by global warming. Few areas in the world can escape the resultant pollution and extreme weather. 

One solution to mitigate the global warming that’s been fueled by imperialism is for the government to reassign the true cost of fossil fuels back to their source through carbon taxes. The higher prices will force the market to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. 

Key Takeaways

  • Imperialism is when a country extends its power into other territories for economic or political gain.
  • Imperialism has played a large role in U.S. history, with impacts on the economy and climate change.
  • While many significant events took place many years ago, the effects of imperialism can still be seen today.
  • By understanding imperialism, we may be able to move forward with smarter business practices and climate change policies.