What are the origins of European imperialism? Based on a new study, Jan P. Vogler explains that centuries of European interstate rivalry contributed in essential ways to the historic imperial expansion of the great powers of the continent. It describes three mechanisms that link interstate competition to colonial expansion and illustrates them through two historical cases.
At first glance, it may seem that imperialism is a relic of the past. The subjugation and exploitation of peoples and territories around the world by European empires reached its peak long ago, at the end of the 19th century. Then, through a long process of decolonization during the 20th century, the countries of the South gained formal independence.
But this formal end of European empires is overshadowed by their multiple and enduring legacies. For example, the global distribution of income is stubbornly enduring: in general, the richest countries of the early 20th century are still the richest countries today, and for the most part the poorest countries of that era remain also among the poorest. Although some East Asian states have been able to catch up with the West, overall there is little movement in relative global income rankings. Similarly, scholars have also argued that the effects of imperialism are still visible in the national economic, political, and infrastructural characteristics of many former colonies.
While imperialism shaped the world and its various effects are still visible today, the debate over its most important causes has not been settled. There are a multitude of economic, cultural and political theories that all aim to explain why European rulers engaged in the acquisition and exploitation of colonies. In this regard, I recently wrote an article which introduces a new theory entirely centered on the crucial role of European interstate rivalries.
Specifically, I suggest that three mechanisms associated with these rivalries led to global colonial expansion. These are first the rulers’ desire to gain relative prestige through territorial expansion; second, significant budgetary pressures resulting from recurring inter-state wars; and third, the creation of powerful interest groups in the form of navies and armies that had a vested interest in the long-term pursuit of imperialism.
A key element of European interstate rivalries was the rulers’ desire for relative prestige gains. War victories and associated land acquisitions not only enhanced the military and economic power of political elites, but also played a key role in determining their relative status: by expanding their territorial spheres of influence, rulers have gained recognition from their peers.
But the occupation of new territories in Europe was generally very difficult for various reasons. Among these reasons was that the continent’s other ruling elites generally had access to comparable military technology and tactics, that is, significant defensive capabilities.
The same is not true for political regimes in other regions of the world. There, European militaries often took advantage of a glaring asymmetry in military technology and tactics that allowed them to occupy large swaths of territory against much less resistance. As a result, in the rulers’ constant zero-sum struggle for relative prestige through territorial acquisitions, the establishment of overseas colonies generally represented an easier way to improve their status.
A second, Material This factor shaped the ruling elites’ incentives for imperial expansion: fiscal pressures resulting from escalating military spending during bouts of war. When great powers clashed on the battlefield or in naval combat, budget shortfalls due to military purchases sometimes reached unprecedented levels. Consequently, leaders sought ways to ease the tax burden from inflated levels of debt.
Early episodes of colonial expansion had already provided massive inflows of silver and gold to European states. And, although not all colonial ventures proved profitable, there was a widespread belief among political elites that imperialism was generally lucrative (or at least had significant potential to be). Thus, rulers sought to establish colonies and impose tariffs on colonial trade because they anticipated that these would be crucial additional sources of tax revenue.
The third and final mechanism is the creation of powerful interest groups. Specifically, although armies and navies initially represented only “tools” in the hands of rulers to effectively wage wars, these organizations and their leaders quickly developed their own genuine interests and political agendas. After all, the state had endowed them with significant material and coercive capacities, which implied that the state had given them not only the meansbut also the incentives find a permanent purpose (in peacetime) that would legitimize their access to these resources.
Thus, when direct military confrontation ended, the military found it in their interest to promote imperial expansion as the next best goal to sustain their social and economic position. As the establishment of colonies often relied on coercion (and therefore required superior military power), it became a natural source of relevance for the military – and particularly for naval forces.
We can see these three mechanisms at work by considering two distinct, well-known rivalries between the major European powers. The first rivalry is that between England and France in the 18th century. In particular, the aforementioned mechanisms regarding budgetary pressures and the formation of interest groups are very relevant and visible in this period.
Following a series of major wars that began in 1688, England and France experienced dramatic increases in government spending and subsequently sought to establish and exploit colonies and colonial trade to the full to resolve these budgetary problems. Additionally, the English Royal Navy became an extremely powerful organization that took advantage of and lobbied for further imperial expansion. In comparison, the French navy was not as well funded and could not become as strong an interest group as its British counterpart, which may partly explain France’s generally less successful colonial expansion during this century.
The second historical episode that helps us understand these mechanisms is the rivalry between Imperial Germany and Great Britain which began in the second half of the 19th century. In this historical rivalry, the desire of the rulers to gain prestige through the colonies is particularly visible. The British and German elites were convinced that a colonial empire was a necessary means of maintaining their country’s great power status.
In this regard, German Foreign Minister (later Reich Chancellor) Bernhard von Bülow sadly asked for “a place in the sun” for the German Empire. Moreover, with its access to significant resources, particularly in the late 19th century, the German Navy quickly became a politically powerful player and its officers embraced an ideology of “navalism”. Also according to this ideology, the colonies were a necessary means of achieving great power status. Thus, the mechanisms concerning prestige and interest groups are very visible in this specific rivalry between great powers.
Why Imperialism Still Matters
It is clear that Europe’s contemporary international position is directly linked to its past. Besides the fact that the current global distribution of income and political power clearly reflects the era of imperialism, the existence of the European Union is the direct result of centuries of intense military rivalry between states.
The most important idea in this sense is that these two major underlying historical phenomena are closely linked. Sustained and intense rivalries between the major European powers were a essential cause of imperialism. And because these historical phenomena continue to shape the world we live in, we must not only understand the two in all their complexity, but also examine the multifaceted connections that bind them together.
For a more detailed account of these arguments and historical cases, see the author’s companion article in the Journal of Historical Political Economy
Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Maksim Shutov on Unsplash