What Is Imperialism?

Imperialism Explained

Definition

The word “imperialism” comes from the Latin term imperium. It means "to command." 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.

A child holds a globe at home, with North and South America facing the camera
Photo:

Teresa Short / Getty Images

Definition and Examples of Imperialism

Imperialism is the raw exercise of power. In his 1902 novel “Heart of Darkness," Joseph Conrad wrote, "...since 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."

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

The Spanish American War ended Spain’s colonial empire in the Western Hemisphere in 1898. 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.

Note

The U.S. 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.

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

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 former French regions of Alsace and Lorraine, and Germany's and Italy's empires included countries in Africa.

On the Allied side of the equation, 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.

Nationalism was also increasing among conquered nations before World War I. Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks were particularly tired of being minorities in the Austro-Hungarian and German empires. Serbian nationalists wanted to end Austro-Hungarian rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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

How Imperialism Works

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

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. This may be the economic justification for creating an empire by controlling other nations.

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

Motives for Imperialism

Historians broadly classify the arguments in favor of imperialism into four or five groups:

  • Economic: Proponents argue the benefits of acquiring goods such as cotton, silk, tobacco, gold, and land, as well as access to trade routes.
  • Cultural: This motive designates some groups as superior to others and therefore equipped to rule over them.
  • Political or strategic: To protect themselves against potential challenges and establish their power, nations aim to control as much territory as possible.
  • Moral or religious: This motive argues it will save people from the dangers of an oppressive government or religion, often by imposing a different one. 

Some historians separate exploratory imperialism, which motivated Europeans to find new trade routes and resources to exploit, from other economic motives.

Imperialism vs. Colonialism

Imperialism Colonialism 
Gains control over another country's politics Gains control over people
Can occur without sending in settlers Often involves settlers from another country

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, which means farmer. The settlers intend to live in the dominated country permanently, but they keep their allegiance to their country of origin.

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

Note

Many people use the terms "imperialism" and "colonialism" interchangeably, but they're not the same. 

Imperialism allows one country to exercise power over another through various methods of control. It can occur without colonialism if the invading country doesn't send in settlers.

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

Imperialism vs. Mercantilism

Imperialism Mercantilism
Gains control over another country's politics and/or economy Exerts control over international trade
Exploits the conquered country's resources The government strengthens the merchants

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

The government strengthens merchants in this model. It establishes monopolies, grants tax-free status, grants pensions to favored industries, and it imposes tariffs on imports. Businesses funnel the riches from foreign expansion back to their governments in return. 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. 

Note

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

Imperialism vs. Capitalism

Imperialism Capitalism 
Gaining control over another country's politics and/or economy Invests in developing countries to sell goods and exploit resources
Exploits conquered country's resources Requires a market economy and may lead to imperialism

Many 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. They invest in developing countries and seek to sell their goods and exploit natural resources as a result. Businesses lean on their governments to protect their own interests.

Marxist philosopher Vladimir Lenin 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 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's price rises when demand for it increases. Competitors increase production when they realize they can make a higher profit.

This can also attract more businesses. The greater supply reduces prices to a level where only the best competitors remain. But these competitors won't stay on top in a pure free market unless they continue to innovate and increase efficiency.

Several non-capitalistic countries have exhibited imperialism. Communist China forcibly annexed Tibet in 1951 to develop its resources, and it sent Chinese volunteers to colonize it. China has also invested billions to extract resources in African nations, taking natural resources in the "partnership" without developing the local communities.

Key Takeaways

  • Imperialism is when a country extends its power into other territories for economic or political gain.
  • The goal of imperialism is to acquire as many resources as possible, often through exploitation and expansion by force.
  • Motives for imperialism include economic, cultural, political, moral, and exploratory arguments.
  • Imperialism and colonialism are closely related, but imperialism can occur without colonialism if the invading country doesn't send in settlers.
  • Imperialism has played a large role in U.S. history with impacts on the economy and climate change.

Want to read more content like this? Sign up for The Balance’s newsletter for daily insights, analysis, and financial tips, all delivered straight to your inbox every morning!

Updated by
Heather van der Hoop
An editor smiles at the camera while sun peeks through the trees behind her
Heather van der Hoop (she/her) has been editing since 2010. She has edited thousands of personal finance articles on everything from what happens to debt when you die to the intricacies of down-payment assistance programs. Her work has appeared on The Penny Hoarder, NerdWallet, and more.
Was this page helpful?
Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Conrad, Joseph. "Heart of Darkness." Pages 8-9. Coyote Canyon Press, 2007.

  2. U.S. Department of State. "Monroe Doctrine, 1823."

  3. U.S. Department of State. "The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902."

  4. Library of Congress. "World of 1898."

  5. Fordham University. "Modern History Sourcebook: Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism."

  6. Indiana Department of Education. "World War I Resources." Pages 2-4.

  7. Thurow, Lester C. "The Zero-Sum Society: Distribution And The Possibilities For Change, New Edition." Basic Books, 2001.

  8. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Darwinism."

  9. Hobson, J.A. "Imperialism: A Study." Cosimo, Inc., 2005.

  10. Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Imperialism.”

  11. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Colonialism."

  12. South African History Online. "The Scramble for Africa: Late 19th Century."

  13. Library of Congress. "Puerto Rico and the United States."

  14. U.S. House of Representatives. "The Philippines, 1898-1946."

  15. Library of Economics and Liberty. "Mercantilism."

  16. PBS. "Lenin's Critique of Global Capitalism."

Related Articles