What Is Imperialism?

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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.

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 resources, often through exploitation and force.
  • Motives for imperialism include economic, cultural, political, moral, and exploratory control.
  • 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.

How Imperialism Works

Imperialism is when one country exercises power over another through various methods of control. It describes an economic, political, and social system in which one country subjugates others, and brings them under its control. Motives for imperialism include economic, cultural, political, moral, and exploratory control.

Imperialists often exploit the conquered country’s resources for their own economic gain. The word “imperialism” comes from the Latin term “imperium,” which means "to command." Imperialism is often associated with colonialism, which is similar in terms of control, but with the additional strategy of the imperial power sending settlers to live in a colony.

Imperialists view economics as a “zero-sum” game in which there's a finite amount of riches in the world. They believe that in order for someone to gain wealth, someone must lose wealth. Imperialists also believe expansion by force is justified by the theory of social Darwinism, or “survival of the fittest.”

The typical goal of imperialism is to acquire as many resources as possible, often through exploitation and expansion by force. This means that as an economic system, imperialism “works” for nations that try to justify the conquest or subjugation of others. For nations that are conquered, the system has generally resulted in an extraction of monetary, mineral, and cultural wealth.

Historians broadly classify the arguments in favor of imperialism into four categories:

  • 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 they are 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.

Examples of Imperialism

The “golden age” of imperialism was the 19th century, during which European nations held empires that covered much of the world. During this period, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, and Great Britain all relied on imperialism to build their wealth.

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.

The scale of these empires was vast. 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. The Russian Empire included most of eastern Europe, including Serbia. The British Empire—the largest empire in the world at the time—had countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The French Empire had Vietnam and most of northern Africa.

Imperialism has occurred outside this context, though. Although the U.S. doesn’t often think of itself as an imperial power, some historians have drawn this comparison. The Monroe Doctrine asserted in 1823 that the U.S. would defend the Americas against European imperialism, for example, and laid the foundation for ongoing U.S. interference in the Western Hemisphere.

The U.S. fought the Spanish-American War to end 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 and Puerto Rico. It defeated Philippine nationalists a few years later, and claimed the Philippines. The American expansion into the Philippines and Puerto Rico did not include colonization.

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

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

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.

Europeans expanded their empires in Africa without intending to fully colonize it in the late 19th century, although imperialism still had a devastating effect on Africa.

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. It is similar to imperialism, but is not quite the same.

With mercantilism, the government aims to strengthen merchants. It establishes monopolies, grants tax-free status to businesses, grants pensions to favored industries, and imposes tariffs on imports. International businesses, in turn, 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

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

Some argue that imperialism is an outgrowth of capitalism. J.A. Hobson, an English historian, has written that capitalist societies produce too much for their own economies to purchase, and therefore, they turned to colonies to “absorb” this excess production.

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

Others argue that capitalism alone doesn't always lead to imperialism. Several non-capitalist countries have exhibited imperialism. Communist China 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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is an example of imperialism?

An example of imperialism includes France’s control of Vietnam from the mid- to late-1800s. Other examples of imperialism include Britain’s control of several countries in the early 1900s, including India, Australia, and many countries in Africa.

Which countries practiced imperialism?

Countries that have practiced imperialism include Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and the U.S. Competition among European countries to claim parts of Africa and Asia was among the driving forces behind World War I.

Updated by
Heather van der Hoop
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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.
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  1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Darwinism."

  2. Thurow, Lester C. "The Zero-Sum Society: Distribution and the Possibilities for Change, New Edition." Basic Books, 2001.

  3. Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Imperialism.”

  4. Fordham University. "Modern History Sourcebook: Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism."

  5. Indiana Department of Education. “World War I Resources.” Page 2.

  6. U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian. “Monroe Doctrine, 1823.”

  7. Library of Congress. “The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War.”

  8. South African History Online. “The Scramble for Africa: Late 19th Century.”

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

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