American Imperialism: Impact, Motivations, and Global Consequences

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The definition of imperialism is the policy of expanding a country’s rule over foreign nations, most of the time accomplished by military force. Imperialism also includes political and economic control of said nation. The age of imperialism, for America at least, lasted from the mid to late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Although imperialism was a worldwide trend in the late eighteen hundreds, today, in the twenty-first century, it is prohibited by international law.

The basic appeal of imperialism was originally jump-started by the Industrial Revolution. The economic success around the world created a thirst for more. Seizing more territory would create new markets, thus increasing the profits. More developed countries were seeking weak nations for their own gain. In the economic aspect, these weaker nations could provide cheap resources and cheap labor. Another appeal to industrialized countries was that they could have larger empires, which in turn meant they were more successful. Stronger countries also wanted control of trading routes, seeing as they could receive a lot of money from charging other countries to use it.

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Defining Imperialism and its Forms

There are four forms of imperialism that were used during the urge for larger empires. The first is colonial imperialism, which is when a country is being controlled internally by a foreign power like Alaska being controlled by Russia or Vietnam being a French colony. On the other side of colonial imperialism are protectorates, which is a territory being controlled by a foreign power, such as the Niger River Delta being a protectorate of England. A sphere of influence is an area where an outside power claims exclusive investment or trading privileges; for example, Liberia was under an American sphere of influence. The last form of imperialism is economic imperialism, which consists of an independent but less developed country controlled by private business interests rather than other nations. An example of economic imperialism would be the Hawaiian pineapple trade being dominated by the Dole Fruit Company.

Forms of Control and Their Effects

Direct control was used to enforce the new control of weak nations. The main benefit that came from direct control was assimilation, in which the natives adopted the culture of the imperial nation, usually forced upon them. The French were infamous for attempts to assimilate their colonies, ultimately leading to the well-known Vietnam War. Foreign officials were brought in to rule colonized land. Most of the time, paternalism was adopted in these cases by giving the citizens what they needed but without giving them any rights.

Indirect control was less commonly used by imperial nations. It consisted of local, native officials forced to lead the other citizens who were hardly ever able to call their own shots as officials. It also included association, in which the imperial nation recognized the different institutions and cultures and did not force them to adapt to new ones but just saw their ways as inferior.

There were positive and negative parts of imperialism, all points being valid. Some benefits for the imperial nations included more raw materials, cheaper labor, and new markets. While the negatives outweighed the positives in regard to the native land, there were some good things, like increased economic output, some industrialization, improvements to sanitation and education, and the establishment of order. Some of the worse effects included natives losing independence, increased number of deaths, disregard of former political boundaries, famine, restrictions of native businesses, and increased racism.

Global Impact of American Imperialism

China had isolated itself for hundreds of years now, refusing to adopt Western ways. The Chinese traded, but only at the Port of Canton, where the rights of European merchants were at the hands of the emperor. The First Opium War, one of the first instances of imperialism in China, was when the Chinese government tried to halt the British from importing opium. This action by the Chinese government resulted in a war in which Britain’s military and advanced industrialization easily destroyed the Chinese military. The Treaty of Nanking opened up five ports, gave Britain the island of Hong Kong, and forced China to pay a large compensation fee.

China was later forced to open eleven more treaty ports that gave exclusive privileges, such as the right to trade with the interior of China and the right to supervise the Chinese customs offices, to the British. Foreigners were also granted the right of extraterritoriality, which meant that Western nations ran their own courts in China and were tried in their own courts. The Western nations dominated China with spheres of influence. France obtained territory in southwestern China. Germany claimed the Shandong Peninsula in northern China. Russia acquired control of Manchuria and a hold over Port Arthur, and finally, the British took control of the Yangzi Valley.

The United States had not yet taken part in creating spheres of influence in China because they feared that it could possibly hurt the U.S. due to the Open Door Policy of 1899. John Hay, the American Secretary of State, gave the idea of the Open Door Policy, suggesting that all trade in China would be equally open to countries and the territory of China would be respected. Imperialists accepted the policy in principle but not always in practice. For the United States, however, the Open Door Policy became heavily relied on in regard to trading in Chinese territory at the beginning of the twentieth century.

By the 1900s, China was in turmoil. There was anguish towards foreigners because they had forced China to give up a large amount of political and economic rights, and the frustration continued to grow. This anger towards foreigners exploded into the Boxer Rebellion. The Manchu government supported the secret Chinese nationalist society, and their goal was to rid China of all foreigners and restore their nation to isolation. In 1900, the Boxers launched a multitude of attacks against foreigners, Chinese Christians, and foreign embassies in Beijing. Imperialistic powers sent an international force of a whopping 25,000 troops to put a stop to the rebellion, which ended within two weeks.

The Boxer Rebellion failed, but it convinced China that resistance was not only possible but necessary. In 1911, rebellions broke out across the country, and the Manchu emperor was removed from power. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen claimed China as a republic and was named the new president. He advocated a three-point program of nationalism, which consisted of freeing China from imperial control, democracy or electing government officials, and livelihood, which meant adapting to Western methods. For the next 37 years, the Chinese Republic would face many problems and would continue to be at war with itself and with foreign invaders.

A major act of imperialism was the Berlin Conference. Fourteen European nations, comprised of Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway, Turkey, and America, met and claimed different regions of Africa, while no representatives from Africa were present, or even invited. The conference was called by Portugal, and at the time, eighty percent of Africa was under local African control.

What came of the conference was a bundle of territorial lines, dividing Africa by who controlled which regions. They separated tribes and cultural groups to weaken the resistance. The new borders merged together groups of people who did not get along, which reinforced the effort to limit the resistance. By 1914, the only African countries not under European control were Liberia and Ethiopia. Liberia was already settled and occupied by free slaves from America and became an independent republic in 1847. Ethiopia was already independent and routed by an Italian invasion in 1896. Ethiopia’s independence was reassured after defeating Italy.

The French occupied the largest amount of territory in Africa, with over three and a half million square miles, which contained the Sahara Desert. France conquered Algeria in 1830, and between the years of 1881 and 1912, they acquired Tunisia, Morocco, West Africa, and Equatorial Africa. At the French Empire’s largest point, it was, collectively, as big as the continental United States.

Great Britain’s territory in Africa was not anywhere close to as big as France’s, but it contained more populated areas, mostly in southern Africa, which was home to many valuable resources such as diamonds and gold. After the much-disputed conflict between the Boers, the Zulus, and Great Britain, Britain intervened and ultimately destroyed the Zulu Empire. In 1890, the prime minister of the Cape Colony wanted to extend the British African Empire from Cape Town to Cairo and tried to annex the Boer Republic. The British had defeated the Boers in the Boer War and annexed the republics. Britain then combined its South African colonies to create the Union of South Africa. The government was run by whites, and the Boers, who severely outnumbered the British, assumed control. This put in place the foundation for racial segregation that would last until the 1990s.

Italy and Germany were both late to the imperialistic ventures, so they acted quickly when they joined. Germany took land in eastern and southwestern Africa, while Italy jumped on the opportunity to take Libya, Italian Somaliland, and Eritrea, which is the north-most province of Ethiopia. Italy’s efforts to gain control of Ethiopia ended in defeat, not gaining the desired.

In 1763, the British took control of India after defeating the French in the Seven Years’ War. India was controlled by the British East India Company, which ruled with a particular strictness. In 1857, a revolt led by native soldiers led to an uprising known as the Sepoy Mutiny. After the rebellion was abruptly stopped, the British government made India part of the empire in 1858, as mentioned previously. Social reforms, advocated education, and promoted technology were implemented by the British. Britain made huge profits from India, which in turn gave India the nickname “Crown Jewel of the British Empire.” Indian citizens, despite the fortune made by them, continued to live in terrible conditions while the British continuously disrespected the native Indian culture.

There was only one Asian country that did not fall victim to imperialism: Japan. The Japanese had already expelled Europeans from Japan and closed Japanese ports to trade with the outside world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only allowing the Dutch to trade at Nagasaki. In 1853, an American naval officer led an expedition to Japan. He convinced the shogun to open ports for trade with the United States. Fearful of being imperialized by foreign countries, unlike China, they reversed their isolation policy and began to modernize and industrialize like the West. In 1867, the Meiji Restoration sought to replace the feudal rulers and increase the power of the emperor. The goal is to make Japan strong enough to compete with the West.

New leaders added strength to the military and transformed Japan into an industrial society to keep up with the West. The Japanese adopted a constitution similar to the Prussian model, with the emperor as the head of the country. The government was not intended to promote democracy but rather unite Japan and make it equal to the Western hemisphere. The leaders built a tactile and strong army based on a draft and constructed a mass of iron steamships. The Japanese then became an imperial power due to their power and success. In the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, Japan earned claims to Korea. Japan also acquired its first colonies—Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands—and shocked everyone by defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. This victory was the first time an Asian power defeated a European power in over 200 years.


In conclusion, new imperialism changed Western society and its colonies. Through imperialism, Western countries established a global economy. Imperialism basically destroyed native culture and industry. By using colonies as sources of cheap materials and markets for manufactured goods, foreign powers held back the colonies from developing. Imperialism brought a confrontation between conflicting cultures. By 1900, Western nations controlled most of the globe. The pressures from foreign powers to westernize forced colonial people to adapt to new lifestyles. Overall, imperialism was kind of stupid and wrong, but also kind of necessary to be where we are today.

Work Cited

  1. Tamaqua.K12.Pa.Us, 2019, Accessed 27 Feb 2019.
  2. ‘American Imperialism: 1890-1920 Timeline.’. Timetoast, 2019, Accessed 27 Feb 2019.
  3. ‘Basics Of Imperialism’. Prezi.Com, 2019, Accessed 25 Feb 2019.
  4. ‘Examples Of Imperialism’. Yourdictionary, 2019,
  5. ‘Imperialism’. En.Wikipedia.Org, 2019, Accessed 25 Feb 2019.
  6. ‘Open Door Policy’. En.Wikipedia.Org, 2019, Accessed 27 Feb 2019.
  7. Rosenberg, Matt. ‘The Berlin Conference: Where A Continent Was Colonized’. Thoughtco, 2018, Accessed 25 Feb 2019.

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American Imperialism: Impact, Motivations, and Global Consequences. (2023, Aug 27). Retrieved from

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