Erasmus university rotterdam



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1.1 Defining Imperialism

Before approaching the primary and secondary sources at my disposal for this project, it is essential that I clarify the analytical framework and precisely define what I mean by ‘imperialism’. This is not as straightforward a task as it might first appear given the array of interpretations offered on the topic. The word imperialism has seen its meaning shift many times. Understanding these shifting meanings is made doubly difficult by the many theories of imperialism which have been invented in the twentieth century. A theory of imperialism is an attempt to find in the apparent chaos of international relations a regular pattern which arises from one or a few basic causes.2 In this section, I will explore a variety of texts that have all dealt with the issue of imperialism and its offshoot theories. They offer differing interpretations and analyses. However, they are broadly united in acknowledging that the common element in almost all the present and past uses of the word “imperialism” is a reference to domination- domination of man over man, country over country.

The aim of this thesis is essentially twofold. It is to demonstrate that the United States international conduct at the dawn of the 20th century was of an imperialist nature, thus shattering the illusion of American “exceptionalism”. It will also ask whether this was a unique form of imperialism, different from the classical methods carried out by earlier metropoles, namely Britain during the 19th century. To facilitate this, I will now proceed to explore some differing perspectives on the study of imperialism, including the economic and capitalist. Alternative theories- including Marxist theories amongst others- are not included in this paper. That should not suggest that I deem these theories invalid but that they are not as suitable as others for this particular thesis.

An analysis of imperialism would be lacking if it did not explore the writings of John A. Hobson, who published his celebrated Imperialism in 1902. Some scholars decree that no other book has been so influential in spreading the doctrine of economic imperialism.3 While scholars universally acknowledge the influence of the text, there are contrasting interpretations of Hobson’s work. This is attributable to the fact that Hobson never offers a categorical definition of imperialism but rather offers a number of statements which appear to be definitions but which differ among themselves. For instance, at one juncture, he says imperialism ‘is a depraved choice of national life, imposed by self-seeking interests which appeal to the lusts of quantitative acquisitiveness and of forceful domination surviving in a nation from early centuries of animal struggle for existence’. Yet at another point he says that imperialism represents the growing tendency of the wealthy classes to ‘use their political power as citizens of this state to interfere with the political conditions of those States where they have an industrial stake’.4 Sometimes he writes of imperialism as virtually the same thing as the drive to acquire and retain colonies yet just as often he writes as though imperialism as a policy could be practiced without any territorial acquisitions. Etherington ultimately attempts to paraphrase Hobson by offering the following definition of imperialism, which he sees as embracing all of Hobson’s various uses of the word. It asserts that ‘imperialism is the deliberate use of the power of the state, including its military power, in order to advance alleged economic interests in the world at large. This includes not only grabbing colonies but a great deal of other aggressive and coercive activity.’5 Winslow suggests that to Hobson, economic imperialism was merely one kind of expansion, and represents a particular type of motive, of which there can be many- including military, religious and other “non-economic” motives.6 Interestingly, some proclaim that Hobson did not regard finance as the “motor-power” of imperialism, but instead regarded patriotism, adventure and political ambition as the engine of expansion.7 This would seem a misinterpretation however as there can be little doubt that the core of Hobson’s message was that the fundamental causes of imperialism and international conflict are economic.

Etherington argues that Hobson contributed two new theses to the theoretical discussion of imperialism. The first pertained to the past growth of the British Empire, which is of lesser importance to this thesis. The second however, concerned the future and the possibilities for imperialism at the dawn of the 20th century, the period in which this topic is steeped. In contrast to those who said that surplus investment capital made imperialism a present and future necessity, Hobson offered his thesis that a redistribution of income and a diversion of more money to worthwhile state projects at home would relieve most of the pressure for aggressive foreign policies.8 In retrospect, such a thesis may appear utopian, for we now know that the coming decades would see carnage on an almost unimaginable scale. The nucleus of Hobson’s economic imperialism theory –stating that capitalists will benefit from imperialism- will remain of use in this master thesis however given the undeniable importance of economic factors in shaping U.S. foreign policy in the period.

Given the nature of this thesis topic, it is also worth exploring Etherington’s analysis of what he titles “America’s first Capitalist Theory of Capitalist Imperialism”, in which he dissects the editorials of the United States Investor during the period of the Spanish-American War of 1898. The Investor was a weekly newspaper that he regards as being an ideal source for contemporary American notions about imperialism.9 Given that their editorials had a sudden change in their tone as regards imperialism, this can be seen as mirroring the shift in wider U.S. policy. As Etherington notes, the editor of the Investor changed his mind about imperialism when he realized that contrary to almost everyone’s expectations it was good for business.10 In May of 1898 the Bostonian editor of the paper announced his sudden conversion to the cause of ‘imperialism.’ The Investor re-iterated that imperialism was a ‘necessity’ -given the surpluses of goods and capital generated by industrial development- and the case it made for necessity deserves to be called a theory of imperialism to Etherington.11 While acknowledging that a Boston financial paper with a small circulation cannot be regarded as the beginning of an imperialist sentiment in America, Etherington is correct in highlighting the path taken by the Investor. It was symbolic of an alteration in mood and mindset amongst Americans to imperialism in a changing world, an era when businessmen and politicians began to search for a new frontier, now that continental expansion was complete. With fears heightening that the USA would face a shrinking home market for products, penetration of Latin America and the broader Pacific region assumed an even greater urgency. Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 publication “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” had been an important stimulant to this view.

With the entire international relations landscape dramatically altered by World War I, discussions on imperialism took a new course. Imperialism came to mean little more than colonialism.12 Leonard Woolf’s Empire and Commerce (1920) stands as an important addition to the field of economic imperialism. Though he restricted his study to colonial questions, his definition of ‘economic imperialism’ is of interest to this thesis:

Economic Imperialism’: Under this term I include the international economic policy of the European States, of the U.S.A., and latterly of Japan, in the unexploited and non-Europeanised Territories of the world. The policy of Economic Imperialism includes colonial policy and the acquisition by the Europeanised State of exploitable territory, the policy of spheres of influence, and the policy of obtaining economic control through other political means. These various kinds of policy are all distinguished by one important characteristic; they all aim at using the power and the influence of the European form of the State in the economic interests of its inhabitants in lands where the European form of State has not developed. I call it imperialism because the policy always implies either the extension of the State’s territory by conquest or occupation, or the application of its dominion or some form of political control to peoples who are not its citizens. I qualify it with the word economic because the motives of this imperialism are not defense nor prestige nor conquest not the ‘spread of civilization’, but the profit of the citizens, or some of the citizens, of the European State.13

While Woolf’s study primarily revolved around the role of the European metropoles in the race for acquisitions in Africa, his theory also name checks the American position at the outset of the 20th century and is thus applicable to my analysis.

Before concluding, it is also worth noting the definition offered by the Dictionary on American Foreign Affairs. It remarks that ‘Imperialism is a concept in international relations of the forcible extension by a nation of its control over foreign areas and their peoples. The term is often used more broadly to describe any significant extension of a nation’s influence and power over other societies through such means as economic exploitation and cultural domination.’14 This definition, in tandem with those offered by Woolf and Hobson, encapsulates my concept of imperialism for this master thesis. Henceforth, this thesis will regard imperialism as being: ‘the deliberate use of the power of the state, including its military power, in order to advance alleged economic interests in the world at large, to extend that state’s power over peoples who are not its citizens and to safeguard and/or create spheres of influence’. The broader, overarching question of this research topic asks whether the United States exhibited imperialist traits under Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft. It is against this definition of imperialism that the question will be gauged.





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