The word imperialism calls to mind pictures of privileged old men dividing the world between themselves. While making deals in smoky backroom parlors, those men agreed to carve up continents. The lives and livelihoods of entire nations were weighed in the balance. The aftermath of those deals is still remembered as imperialism. But what are the pros and cons of imperialism?
There are many benefits to imperialism. These include the spread of culture, and advances in healthcare, sanitation, education, and technology. However, imperialists also engaged in war and violence. Diseases and plagues were also prevalent in imperial empires.
What Is Imperialism?
Imperialism has been recognized as a concept since the late 19th century. Then it was applied to describe the expansion of colonial powers like Great Britain across the world. At that time European countries competed for industrial and military power. Instead of directly attacking each other, they sometimes tried to increase their wealth by taking resources from weaker countries in faraway places.
The political philosophers of those days derived the term imperialism from the Latin word imperium. They referred to the process of how the Roman Empire dominated and controlled distant territories. Political cartoons depicted imperialists as bloodthirsty tyrants. This was meant to cast the colonial powers in a negative light. By comparing them to Rome, the cartoons implied that ruling elites were selfishly seeking their own glory.
Imperialism vs Colonialism
The most infamous imperialists of that era were colonial powers. However, there is some distinction between imperialism and colonialism. In theory, one could be practiced without the other. Imperialism focuses on domination and control of faraway people by a strong central power. This could also happen within the borders of one country. For example, a capital city would practice imperialism over the surrounding countryside.
On the other hand, colonialism refers to planting colonies of a nation’s own people on foreign soil. This doesn’t necessarily imply coercion or force. Colonies could be settled by willing colonists with close ties to their home countries. For example, the United States began as several colonies that maintained a good relationship with the United Kingdom. Only once they perceived that the relationship had become coercive did they rebel against British imperialism.
Imperialism is not always restricted to military control. Controlling people through cultural and economic means could also be considered imperialism. In fact, these softer types of imperialism could sometimes be more effective and longer-lasting.
The United Kingdom practiced cultural imperialism while consolidating control of the Indian subcontinent. By forcing English language and culture, the British Empire imposed their civilization and way of life on the many different culture groups in India. Even today, long after the British military left the subcontinent, the influence of their cultural imperialism persists.
In more recent times, imperialism has been used to describe the spread of American power abroad. Early on, when the United States was famous for being peaceful, imperialism began economically. After the European colonial powers were weakened during the Second World War, the United States leveraged its intact industrial power to dominate the world economy. A commodified, imperialistic variety of American culture quickly spread with those goods and services.
During the late 20th and early 21st century, American flags have been raised over dozens of foreign military bases. This began during the Cold War as a counter against Soviet imperialism but continued afterwards. Since then, the United States exercised major military inventions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although the alleged justifications have ranged from fighting terrorism, securing oil, or protecting banks, the common theme is that the United States extended its power beyond its borders. For better or worse, those actions could be considered imperialism.
The Pros of Imperialism
Imperialism has obvious benefits for the dominant side. The imperialists dictated the laws and policies of the territories that they controlled. This allowed them to always place themselves in the winning position and to settle any dispute in their own favor. Imperial countries gained all the raw materials they needed for their factories. Then they could sell finished goods back across their empire. Imperialists protected their interests by placing military and naval bases in the conquered territories.
Surprisingly there may also have been benefits for the subordinate side. Countries that established empires had advantages that gave them a cutting edge. By extending their rule into faraway lands, they also shared the traditions and technologies with the conquered people.
Ancient empires like Rome spread their civilization across the world. Many modern cultures such as France and Spain originated as Roman territories and benefited from the civilization. Imperialism in recent times sometimes had similar effects.
The spread of culture is one benefit of imperialism. In an empire many different groups of people are brought under one sphere of influence. This also tears down borders between cultures. The best aspects of each culture can be shared and disseminated.
Western imperialism resulted in several cultural benefits for the conquered countries. Healthcare and hygiene practices improved in unison around the world. Better education resulted in higher literacy. Certain religions and languages also became more common.
Healthcare practices improved during the era of Western imperialism. The stronger developed nations typically had much better healthcare. This resulted in less mortality and longer lifespans. Not having to deal with the burdens of diseases and poor health greatly improved their output and fueled the imperial expansion to other continents. They also used the gains from imperial conquests to fund scientific research. Modern medicine began during this time.
Education also benefited from imperialism. Exploring the world yielded many great discoveries. These scientific breakthroughs created a positive feedback loop that further benefited the population. Once people realized the value of education it began to be promoted more at the national level.
Well educated populations also fared better in trade and in business which motivated imperial rulers to educate their populations. They also instituted education programs in their imperial territories to impress their own culture on the natives.
The imperialists developed better sanitation in their empires. Ancient Romans would build aqueducts to supply running water to their imperial territories. Building well-watered cities improved people’s lives and made administering the empire easier. The better sanitation in those cities made the inhabitants healthier and more productive.
Very similar changes happened from the 1800s through the mid-1900s around the world. European imperialists build European-style cities with better sanitation. Eventually many countries decided to build their own western style cities and the trend continued.
Language and culture also spread across the empires. People in the sphere of influence were forced to speak a common language. As a result, they were better able to trade between each other and with the dominant imperial country. The common language would become a lingua franca for the entire region. This accelerated the spread of other technologies and cultural aspects like religion.
For example, during Western imperialism, many missionaries also went into countries throughout the imperial domains. They spread Christianity where they went. Other religions like Islam also spread because of empires and imperialism at different times.
Imperialism spread technologies, particularly industrialization. Modern agriculture was a tremendous benefit for everyone in the empire. This increased food production and allowed people to feed themselves by growing much more food on any given amount of land.
Reducing hunger improved life expectancy and increased the population. A larger population also meant that more workers were available for factories and to benefit the economy. These factories had easy access to raw materials from free trade across the empire.
The Cons of Imperialism
All the conquered peoples lose their sovereignty. Since they are not able to make decisions for themselves, they are more likely to suffer. Instead of fixing local problems their resources and attention must always be toward the dominant imperial country. Sometimes the exploitation even went so far as outright slavery, such as in the Belgian Congo where many brutal atrocities were committed.
Warfare and Violence
Local revolts would encourage the dominant imperial country to engage in a military intervention. Sometimes these local conflicts could turn global if multiple great powers fought each other for control of a territory. To prevent this the great powers would spend huge amounts of money on their armies and navies.
Military expenditures could become a large burden for the country and require a lot of taxation. They would try to form many entangling alliances between each other. Nevertheless, the age of imperialism ultimately exploded into two world wars before the European empires began to decline.
Spread of Disease
Large imperial domains with complicated webs of trade routes could also be more than goods and culture. Sometimes local disease outbreaks could quickly spread throughout an empire. Because of the imperial policies that remove borders within the empire, these plagues could jump from large imperial cities to other cities across the world.
For example, the Spanish Flu spread around the world while the imperial powers fought each other in World War One. In many areas, more people died from the disease outbreak than from the war. These outbreaks almost seem like natural retribution against the imperial powers for their hubris. The great powers were forced to concede that global cooperation can be more effective than imperial domination.