History International Affairs

Colonial Expansion; American Imperialism vs European imperialism

What circumstances led to the emergence of the United States as an imperialist power, and to what extent was/is American Imperialism different from European imperialism of the past couple of centuries?
The rise of the US as an imperialist power and its domination of the world as never seen before, presents a very different example for us to look at. Unlike the great European powers of the past couple of centuries US is not known to have colonized vast number of countries. We are well aware of the European conquests, in all parts of the world, whether it is Africa, Asia or the US itself which was once a British colony. The US no doubt has exerted enormous influence all over the world in varying extent, and sometimes being the sole determinant of a countries fate, its approach or the settings to being an imperialist power were quiet different as compared to its predecessor. Having said that, US has captured, bought and attacked countries to ensure its gain. Recent examples are Iraq and Afghanistan. I will try to analyze the setting and circumstances which exalts US to the status of an imperialist power. The impact these settings had on the approach taken by the US and how they differed with the European experience.

The US with its vast land, abundant natural resources, a growing population that was literate comparatively and presence of sea on majority of its border was truly blessed. To make things better, her neighbors were never a major threat to its stability. Self sufficiency due to these factors was never a problem. Self sufficiency indicates presence of extra man power and finance to look for more and better investments to maximize return. US did not have to look very far unlike European powers in this regard. Europe which was already over populated had to look for foreign land and resources, result being colonization all over the world. US on the other hand just had to expand westward. Even to this day over-population has never been a major concern for the US. It keeps receiving the maximum number of skilled immigrants and presents vast opportunities for the migrant. With such grand characteristics to boast, there was little doubt that the settings were perfect to be a world power.

1776, when the US got its own independence, was certainly the freedom from the shackles when this huge monster got up and departed on a journey to devour the world. Its birth in itself was the single most important factor and reason to its rising as the imperialist power. By the time of her birth, her trade, manufacturing and economic coercive power and military strength was comparable to any in the world. Number of international factors contributed towards this journey and expedited the process. The precarious European balance of power meant that US emerged as the single powerful force. The dependence of Europe mainly Britain on the American goods meant that severing ties with this giant would lead to economic strangulation. The US had already begun to flex it muscles in its childhood. Such was its strength that France wanted to become its allies as soon as it was independent. This she thought would restore the balance of power in Europe. US were able to dictate terms and conditions on equal footings. The necessity for the European power to have US on its side meant that US was even more in a dominating position.

The famous notion for an imperialist power to have huge armies and navies, a few percentage placed abroad at various location to exert physical strength was contradicted with the US experience. The US concentrated more on consolidating it position at home. Strengthening it economically and controlling the fate of those dependent on her. Its immediate need to expand was satisfied by capturing or buying its immediate neighbor. It bought many Spanish colonies and expanded westward. For many years after its independence it had not captured any significant foreign land indicating that it was able to dominate situation from home and felt no need for any physical coercion. This new form of imperialism as established by the US was subtle in a certain way and presented no direct threat or fear of any damage.

Under the absence of fear, the other major powers in the world felt of taking no drastic measure to curb the increasing strength of this baby giant. The result was the smooth growth of this baby and transition into a mega-economy that dominated the world. With its resources, gains and fate linked to many countries around the world, it was however, imperative that it would also exert some direct control. Every country is influenced by its private enterprises. The endeavor of expansion is taken with a goal of extracting profits. With the fortune of each enterprise attached to various policy goals, there were circumstances where it became necessary to exert direct physical coercion. Whether it is for security, economic or strategic and political reason. The first such major conquest took place in the late nineteenth century with the colonization of Philippines and Hawaii. These are the first major colonization attempt with each having its strategic reasoning. Philippines was important as a geographically strategic location for further expansion or at least presence in Far East. However, many believe that such a conquest was more of a liability to the US rather then any gain. Also many have the notion that with such conquests did US begin to start its journey as a major world power. It might have incited some fear amongst its rivals but its journey had well started and was soon going to rise and dominate world conditions.

The unprecedented growth in technologically, meant growth in all other sectors. The agricultural sector produced output in huge amounts. The consumer good industries flourished with new invent of machineries. And if the presence of huge Atlantic Ocean was not good enough defensive barriers between the US and the Europe, inventions on the military front made sure that US became out of reach for any country to even have any though of curbing its growth through any military intervention. The growth in arms industry also led to decreasing need of huge armies and became a more formidable threat in the form of weaponry. US was also soon going to become the weapon and ammunition capital of the world, hence facilitating it march towards being one of the greatest imperialistic power of the world.

US used these circumstances to its great advantage. It propagated its economic, social, cultural and political ideology to a huge population of this world. Once trapped and following, it hardly had any problem in manipulating and channeling situations to its own favor. In the European case, the colonizers had their personal presence to modify ideologies and to form a class that would help it establish and dominate the country. In the US case, it presents a pressing question to analyze the ways in which the world adopted the popular American culture.

The famous American culture which propagates consumerism to a level never seen before, however limited to a certain privileged minority, whereas the masses of this world suffers. The possible expansion of American culture could have taken through the vast operations of multi-national corporations, which were able to operate through the coercion of its government on other foreign governments or solely through it being more efficient then any home corporation. The modification of taste and attitude could also be explained by presence of American influence in the media. It can also be possible that the ideology was not forced and it was simply successful and seemed attractive enough for people to follow with varying modification according to countries need. Whatever the means have been for influence of American ideology on majority of this world, the results assisted this imperialistic power to grow further. The familiarity with American ways helped the American enterprise exploit countries in a better way. Sometimes exploiting did not even require the personal presence of any American. It only required the establishment of a corporation in the foreign company and operations totally controlled by a local elite set up by the enterprise itself to safeguard its investment.

Neither U.S objective nor its means is territorial acquisition. It exercises control or influence through local regimes, and through less formalized and economic, diplomatic, cultural and other means of control. The same reason I believe that present attack on Iraq and Afghanistan were soon followed with announcements about withdrawal and forming coalition and provisional power transfer governments. Just proving the idea that even if military coercion takes place, it is only to keep the power check and any possible imminent threat in control. The primary purpose is to form conditions feasible to be controlled from home rather then direct control. Only Britain at its height was able to operate as smoothly as the Americans with this different form of imperialism was doing. However even Britain could not equate U.S’s global reach militarily, culturally and economically.The U.S is so lacking in formidable rivals, that such disparity of power has never been seen in the past.

The differences between the imperialism can also be seen on the capital and human resource front. Britain in its era of imperial expansion was a major exporter both of capital and of people, however; the US today is a significant net importer of both. Also the dissimilarity in terms of population movements may be the most striking difference of all between modern American empire and almost all earlier imperial systems. The expansion of earlier imperial system was dependent on movement of locals to from home to colonies whereas American growth is based on influx of skilled migrant from rest of the world to the imperialist power.

However, both Britain and U.S believed in free trade form of economy. Coercion or diplomacy was exerted for the purpose of imposing free trading conditions on a weaker society against its will. Foreign loans were offered, diplomatic and military support was extended to weak states in return for economic concessions or political alliance. Middle East was a prime example in the case of U.S. Middle East being economically very important for the US as a major source of oil. The processes through which both the imperialism took place can be different, however, the aim and objective remain identical. European imperialist like the American sought to gain at the expense of others. Differing conditions meant that more bloodshed was necessary in one condition then in other, however, it does not suggest that one form of imperialists were less brutal then the others. American contemporary actions prove that it can go to any extent in order to capture its benefit and to remain on the top. Power makes a country greedy and it always likes more of it. It can fall to any possible level to secure its gain and the experiences of both imperialist suggest that they were no different in this regard and the essence is essentially the same.

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Tariq Aftab Hussain

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  • There are several key points that the author may want to research further: America ran into problems with its own businesses in the late 1880-1890s when the same swallowed up US resources and caused major damage at home. Then, in the early 1900s when Europe destroyed itself in war and great depressions hit Europe and the USA much of the same money that had caused great damage a generation before was used to take away many of the rights of the American people, change their constitution, and change their foreign policy. The America of the past 60 years is not the America of its birth. The horrible pain that has been suffered by foreign countries has largely been caused by a select few US businesses and a large group of global elites who have gobbled up resources and pushed less moral cultural views.

    Please look into the progressive movement and the cultural revolution and help your readers see that Americans are also struggling with these awful things that are happening. Our children are suffering, too. Our churches are being trampled, too. If there is one thing we should all be praying for, it is that the God of heaven, whatever title we each choose for him, will help the good people of the world to stand firm against the extreme elements in our own lands and try to look abroad to help others.

    We are brothers and we must bind together.