Imperialism vs. Colonialism: Effects and Goals

Jose Antonio Hernandez Castillo, Shawn Grimsley
  • Author
    Jose Antonio Hernandez Castillo

    Jose Antonio is a Civil Engineer with a Master's Degree in Environmental Engineering and currently studying his doctorate. He has taught subjets like microbiology, physics, chemistry, statistics, biology, calculus and math for college and high school for over 6 years.

  • Instructor
    Shawn Grimsley

    Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Understand the differences between imperialism vs. colonialism. Discover the origins of colonialism and imperialism, learn how they function, and study examples. Updated: 03/16/2022

Table of Contents


Imperialism vs. Colonialism

Throughout history, the international system has been made up of different civilizations and countries that have exercised power over other weaker ones. This was done with different objectives, whether military, economic, or cultural. In the 15th century, two systems of political control formally emerged: colonialism and imperialism. Both systems describe global relations between two or more nations and how they are used to achieve the stronger nation's goals. Imperialism and colonialism are frequently confused. Both terms are commonly used in everyday conversations. People relate them to the domination of a nation over another. When contrasting imperialism vs. colonialism some differences stand out. The main difference is that in colonialism the strongest nation exercises total control of the weak nation in every way. It also establishes a political structure to rule that country and ends with their autonomy. In imperialism, the strongest nation can influence the weak nation to serve its interests, controlling them in a direct or indirect way. Imperialism can take the form of colonialism, but also has other tools to put pressure. This means that in imperialism there is not necessarily a formal relationship between the imperialist and the weak subdued nation.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: How Nationalism Impacts World Politics

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Imperialism
  • 1:34 Neoimperialism
  • 2:45 Colonialism
  • 5:09 Neocolonialism
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed


Imperialism is a political doctrine that defends the domination of a nation based on the power of another superior nation. This doctrine advocates extending the authority of a government over other nations that, therefore, are subdued. Some features of imperialist nations are:

  • They dominate the weak nation by the use of force. This not only means military force, but they can also apply other strategies like economic pressure.
  • The means of production are controlled by the imperialist nation.
  • The benefits derived from the exploitation of resources are sent to the imperialist nation.
  • The imperialist nation imposes a monopoly on the dominated nation.
  • The imperialist nation maintains political control over the dominated nation.
  • Many of the citizens of the imperialist nations tend to feel superiority over the subject citizens.

Imperialism arose in the 15th century for different reasons. The European nations saw in other continents a source for the exploitation of natural resources which could be processed and transformed into products. Also, they could submit the population and turn them into slaves or a cheap workforce. There was also a lot of competition between nations to expand territories and increase their power. Controlling territories and sea routes gave these countries great geopolitical control. In turn, technological advances strengthened this desire to discover and control new territories. The expansion of religion in new territories was also one of the causes of the rise of imperialism.

Although imperialism benefits the world powers, it greatly affects the dominated peoples. The dominated nations and indigenous peoples have lost their identities, as well as some languages and religions. It has also generated inequality in dominated countries and dependence on imperialist countries. Finally, as the dominated nations have to adapt their economy to the dominant nation, many of the productive activities that they carried out before being dominated are lost. However, imperialism can also have a positive effect on the dominated nations. For example, a less developed nation can access more advanced resources and technologies thanks to the nation that dominates it.

There are different types of imperialism. Economic imperialism is the domination of one nation over another less developed nation through trade relations. For example, when a foreign company acquires the companies that provide the basic services of a country. Political imperialism seeks a country to cede its territory either by military force, exerting pressure, or threat of attack. Ideological imperialism is when one nation exerts influence over another through ideas or religion.

Throughout history, there are a lot of examples of Imperialism. An example of ideological imperialism was seen in the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union put pressure on other less-developed nations to make a common front around capitalism and communism respectively. For example, the Soviets had influence over Cuba through socialist ideas and that way they had access to their territory and resources. Another example is the British Empire. The British conquered territories like North America, India, New Zealand, Australia, and Belize. But instead of totally controlling them, they established autonomous governments that are accountable to the British Crown.


Traditional imperialism is characterized by the use of military force by a nation to defeat other nations and incorporate them into its domain. After World War II and the Cold War, the international community has united and spoken out against global armed conflicts. Therefore, currently, the military invasion of one country to another is not accepted or well received. Also, globalization and the rapid flow of information have meant that everyone is aware of events in any part of the world in real-time.

However, imperialism has not disappeared. It has been transformed into neoimperialism: a different way of exerting political, economic, and cultural influence over other nations. This new imperialism, instead of using the military, uses economic power, organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, international laws, and the mass media to dominate other countries. Neoimperialist nations use capital as their main tool to put pressure on other nations. For example, a transnational company from a certain country establishes in various less-developed nations. Through its economic power and influence, they can pressure governments to enact laws that suit their interests. The debt is also a tool used by neoimperialist nations. When less-developed countries ask for a loan to other countries, there is a compromise between both nations that can put pressure on weaker countries. Also, the use of mass media is a tool used to transmit ideas and spread them all over the world, including in less-developed countries.

The United States is considered an expert neoimperialist country. The US has a great economic, cultural, and military influence over a lot of countries. However, it is rare that their army is used nowadays. An example of their economic influence over other countries is in their currency. The dollar is the global currency and many other currencies are related to it. Also, American companies are all over the world, influencing the culture and economy of various countries.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between imperialism and colonialism?

The main difference is that in colonialism the strongest nation exercises total control of the weak nation in every way. It also establishes a political structure to rule that country and ends with their autonomy. In imperialism, the strongest nation can influence the weak nation to serve its interests, controlling them in a direct or indirect way, without necessarily taking away government autonomy

What are 2 differences between imperialism and colonialism?

Two differences between colonialism and imperialism are that colonialism takes total control of the colonized country while imperialism does not necessarily. It can control another country just by pressuring it. Another difference is that traditional colonialism implies using military force while imperialism can control other nations by other means like economic influence.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account