Imperialism & Colonialism in the International System

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  • 0:01 Imperialism
  • 1:34 Neoimperialism
  • 2:45 Colonialism
  • 5:09 Neocolonialism
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
Throughout history, major political powers in the international system turned to imperialism and colonialism to increase their wealth and power. In this lesson, you'll learn more about imperialism and colonialism and the impact it has on political communities.


The strong dominate and the weak must often capitulate in the international system, which encompasses states and other international actors and their relationships with each other based upon a set of norms, customs and rules. It's important to understand that these norms, customs and rules don't necessarily protect the weak from the strong. We can explore how the strong may dominate in the international system by examining imperialism.

Imperialism is the dominance of one political community over another political community. The weaker political community is influenced to serve the dominant power's interests. You can think of it as empire building, which was often a bloody affair. For example, the European imperialism in Africa and North and South America was accomplished through military conquest and colonization.

Why is it so important? Imperialism allows relatively small countries with limited resources to grow into great powers on the world stage. Let's look at England, for example. England was a relatively small island nation off the coast of Europe, but through its pursuit of imperialism, it forged a worldwide empire so extensive that it was oft said that the sun never set upon the British Empire.


While old school imperialism typically utilized military force, conquest and settlement for empire building, it's not the only path taken towards imperialism. In fact, nowadays military force is not used very much as it is no longer viewed as acceptable by the international community. Nevertheless, imperialism can be pursued through the assertion of political, economic and cultural influence, often referred to as neoimperialism.

Some point to the United States as a maestro of the art of neoimperialism. The United States exerts a great deal of influence over the entire world. Although the U.S. uses its military might to forward its interests, it also relies on economic power, its influence in the design and policy of important international institutions, such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and alternative methods to spread social, political and economic values and culture across the world.


It's important to note that while some tend to treat imperialism and colonialism interchangeably, the two concepts are not synonymous. Colonialism is traditionally defined as conquering and settling occupied or unoccupied territory. For example, England, Spain and France colonized North America. Imperialism is a broader category of domination that encompasses colonialism. You can think of it as one of the tools you can use to build an empire. Colonialism pretty much became extinct as the final remnants of the old colonial empires were dissolved after World War II.

Even though the colonial system is now pretty much extinct, its effect is still being felt across the old colonies. Some of the old colonies suffer from internal conflict because their boundaries were based on the colonial system, which separated some ethnic groups and placed traditionally hostile groups within the same boundaries. Think about the problems that would exist if suddenly part of Alaska and part of Russia would suddenly be declared one unified country. There wouldn't be a sense of community necessary for the formation of a strong nation-state; instead, there probably would be outright hostility among neighbors, if not open civil war.

Another legacy left over from colonialism is that many former colonies are far behind in economic development. The colonial powers tended to extract the wealth and resources from the colonies for the benefit of the homeland. That was, of course, the big reason for pursuit of an empire. Thus, former colonies were often burdened with a narrowly focused economic base that was designed to benefit the homeland, such as growing a specific cash crop or mining a specific mineral useful or profitable for the colonial power.

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