Imperialism is a necessary component of the improvement of the human condition. Regional economic systems will not get off the ground to the point of allowing expansion into even such simplistic concepts as compound metals (which require trade products from widely dispersed areas) with out the concept of imperialism to allow expansion of control and security. Without imperialism, we would still be at the economics development stage of tribal groups.
Properly speaking building an empire is the role of Rulership, in a natural progression of expanding the security of your boundaries. The further away you can push enemy threats, the safer and more secure your homeland becomes, and the more profitable that security makes it. The concept of rulership automatically implies the concept of empire, in that few rulers can ever have enough security. (Although there may be exceptions, particularly islands like feudal Japan, the rule is that there will always be another threat that involves expanding the boundaries just a little bit further.) This is the foundation of traditional empire, particularly continuous land frontier empires. All of the ancient empires fall into this pattern, as do the Medieval Mongol and Turkish empires, and those of Czarist Russia, the continental United States, and Nazi Germany.
Nicola Machiavelli distinguishes six types of government three positive – monarchical, aristocratic and democratic, and three degraded versions tyranny, oligarchy and licentiousness. Perhaps we can suggest that the three basic types of imperialism - security, assistance (‘white man’s burden’), and trade, each has a negative alternative vainglory, robber-barony and competitive.
Security Empire involves making the borders safe (pushing back the barbarian raiders model), whereas Vainglory Empire involves being dragged into places no sensible person wants to go, simply to ensure that your rival does not go there (Palestine in 1918). Trade Empire is self-explanatory (India and Singapore), whereas Competitive Empire involves thinking that power comes from simply possessing a trading Empire, and foolishly expanding into areas where the cost is greater than the gains (Central Africa, New Guinea). Assistance Empire involves us in that most slippery of concepts “for the good of the people”. Assistance Empire might be exampled by Britain’s seizing power in parts of India to stamp out activities like Thuggee or in the Gulf to stop piracy or slavery; or the invasion of Nazi Germany or Hussein’s Iraq. (Some religious movements also want to bring ‘the light’ to people… Christians and Muslims?) Robber-barony would be example by the conquest of the Aztecs and Inca’s, whose entire motivation was ruthless extortion. (Some Christian or Muslim conquest might also fit into this?)
The great Middle Eastern and Asian land-based empires can be broken into two types, expansion of security (which often includes trade), and straight out conquest (which is usually a variation on robber baron, where they want to control more trade nodes and tax more peasants). Maritime-based empires, not having continuous borders, are usually more complex.
The first Trade Empire was that of the Phoenicians. They spread their civilisation around the edges of the Mediterranean, not principally in search of conquest, but rather in search of trade opportunities. The fact that their settlements were developed into local hegemonic powers such as Carthage is simply a reflection of the necessity of securing the borders of your new trading states. As such the empire of Carthage was ill suited to competition with the Roman robber baron empire that arose to compete. Rome was less interested in free trade, and more interested in subduing all possible competition, and controlling more peasant farmers to tax. Rome’s expansion into Spain, Bengal, North Africa, and around the rest of the Mediterranean certainly had trade components, but was fundamentally pursued for the glory of conquest of Roman senators, the enrichment of the Roman state, and the reward of the Roman soldiers (and more taxes). Power in ancient Rome came from glory and conquest, and was maintained by making generous gifts to soldiers and supporters who backed up that power (ie. The need for more taxes).
What we think of as the modern age of European imperialism started as trade empires. European states, particularly Spain and Portugal, were seeking an alternative way around the trade hegemony of the Muslim Middle East. Their first efforts into the West African coast, and even into Asia, were exactly the sort of trading missions that established or conquered regional bases, which are similar to the Phoenicians and Carthage. (Most of the places they traded with had fairly stable governments of their own which – parts of India and Asia, or were too strong to immediately coerce – China and Japan.) By contrast, their arrival in the Americas had the unfortunate circumstantial of discovering unstable gold and silver rich civilisations. The concept of establishing trading basis for their own sake was immediately abandoned for the preference to conquer new lands to extort wealth from. Initially this was simply a matter of capturing large amounts of processed specie from the existing states, but quickly that moved on to enslaving populations to work in the mines to keep produce coming, and taxing new peasants. This shifted the mindset of a trading nation in to the concept of wringing wealth from the land, so vast estates sprang up, and new industries were put into production to produce commodities that would be of high value in Europe. Entire populations were transported from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean islands to push through this concept of wringing wealth from the land. The Spanish in particular created an empire of robber barons. This approach leads to inevitable disaster. Centralisation of power; devolution of interest (loss of asibaya or common interest); eventually cost of control exceeding available profit; rebellions and revolutions; bankruptcy of motherland, etc.
By contrast the Dutch and English, being proper maritime nations rather than land powers with naval pretensions, were serious traders. (The Portuguese belonged with the maritime set, not with the naval powers like Spain, France, Russia and later Germany, but they too got sidetracked in South America.) They had to established fortified basis, and they too were more than willing to expand their regional control to secure those bases and make trade more profitable, but they are rarely lost sight of the idea that trade was valuable for its own purposes. Most of the civilisations that they encountered were left largely intact and allowed to continue. (Though the effects of disease in the Americas may have made it harder to have kept such civilisations going even had the Spanish and Portuguese been so inclined. This may have helped undermine Portuguese maritime logic.) The British and Dutch settled down to make as much money as possible working through the local princes and trading structures, rather than destroying the entire system and starting from scratch.
The empires that could be classed as trade empires include not just the Phoenician’s, and that of Venice, but also the Vikings, the Dutch, British, and at least partly the French. The empires that could be considered robber baron empires include not just the Romans and the Spanish, but also the Italians, Belgians, and Germans. It is notable that the Italians and Germans in particular got in to Competitive Empire because they believed that Trade Empire had made Britain great, but the sad odds and sods of the world left for particularly the Germans to conquer were not great trading areas, so they were reduced to robber baron techniques regardless of whether that would have been their preference anyway. (It would appear it was their preference, because investment, to encourage development, to encourage trade, was markedly lagging in their imperial possessions.)
This brings up the concept of suitability to running a trade empire. Successful trade empires such as the Dutch, British and American trade empires, were run by Protestant nation’s. Robber baron empires, such as the Spanish, Portuguese, Belgians and Italians, were run by Catholic states. (The Russian land empire was Orthodox, but also fitted closer to traditional central Asian empires than the new sea based western empires.) It would be too simplistic to argue cause and effect, but the correlation is remarkable. It may be telling that Germany, which is a half and half Catholic/Protestant nation, consciously tried a half and half solution of trade/robbery.
The interesting comparison is with the Asian state that most successfully adapted European techniques. The Japanese also saw the advantage of a trade empire, but also developed their Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere more along the lines of a robber baron empire. This could be a reflection of Catholic model of central control (divine right of kings/emperors); or of subservience to the latest economic theories as put forward by German theorists; or simply of racism. Given that when Japan later adopted Anglo-sphere concepts of trade they were remarkably successful, it is possible that the answer is more to do with the problem of 19th-century and Germanic theory than with inherent in vices towards Catholic style rule in the Shinto system.
This is not to suggest that any of the named empires did not have forays into the alternative strategies. In fact every empire that I have named bounced between different attitudes at various times and in various areas. Certainly Britain finished up with responsibility for parts of Africa and the Middle East for which it had no trading interest, on the simple principle of Competitive Empire to keep the enemy’s distance. This does not necessarily mean that Britain treated those territories in the sense of traditional robber baron states, but it certainly showed that if you were going to manage a non-profitable area, it had to adopt elements of robber baron extortion to have funds to make anything possible. Interestingly, it was the failure of this sort of imperialism to satisfy the taxpayers at home that led to the abandonment of the entire British imperial system.
The United States also had a varied attitude. The conquest of Indian territory was traditional land Conquest imperialism with no real trade element involved. The repeated conquests of already settled Mexican territory in the south and California was more straightforward Robber-Baron conquest of new land and peasants to tax. The expansion into the elements of the Spanish empire in Cuba and the Philippines was as much Competitive Empire - pushing competition out of trading areas - as it was about conquering more valuable trading positions in pursuit of 19th-century ideals of greatness. Hawaii was a British style sample where the imperial state reluctantly followed its traders into a political dominance of a state that could have been perfectly capable of continuing as a profitable trading partner. Vainglory is the best description. America even finished up with its own trade concessions in China – Competitive - though they always denied that these were in any way similar to everybody else’s trade concessions, and tried to claim Assistance empire.
The history of robber baron empires is not good. Ibn Khaldun talks of asibaya failing over the course of time, leading to inevitable collapse. It is arguable that more robber baron empires have collapsed because internal organisation was not up to maintaining them, than because the outsiders who eventually moved in were actually technically or militarily superior. Trade-based empires do not seem to have the same problem. The two possible reasons for dismantling trade-based empire that is not under threat from outside: are either that it is no longer profitable, or that there is no longer any need to have imperial protection because the trade can securely go on with out. Both of these issues are related to the taxpayers are not seeing the relevance of keeping up expensive imperial power projection. In fact it seems likely that most trade-based empires could usually maintain a technological edge over their robber baron equivalents. Rome certainly had to throw enormous energies into copying the technologies of Carthage before it could overcome her, and even then it was Rome’s superior land power that guaranteed the final result not her superiority at maritime trade technology. This means that Rome was acting more like a traditional central Asian Imperial Conquest Empire than like the proper Maritime Trade Empires.
Kennedy’s interesting but ultimately unsatisfactory Rise and Fall of the Great Powers makes the assumption that all empires can be compared by their economic costs. Fair enough. Unfortunately he then compares the indisputable collapse of robber baron empires, with the often voluntary liquidation of trade empires once communications are secure, or even with the rational desire of taxpayers to abandon the irrational accretions of Competitive Empire ASAP.
In economics as in any other science, confusing different outcomes by assuming similar motivations should be a no-no. Or to put it in terms that even an economist might understand - let’s not compare apples with oranges.