For centuries, European history was characterized by a fundamental asymmetry. While interpolity relations on the continent were often relatively balanced — without any dominant power being able to permanently establish a hierarchical relationship to the other major powers — the relations between European states and polities in other world regions were generally hierarchical and exploitative, as manifested in colonialism and imperialism. How can we explain this difference? I argue that the symmetrical character of relationships among major European powers, particularly in the form of sustained and intense military and economic competition, was partly constitutive of the hierarchical relationships between those same powers and other parts of the world. Specifically, three mechanisms connect sustained rivalries to imperialism: (1) political elites' desire to improve their relative status/prestige through territorial gains, (2) pressure from public budget deficits that incentivized colonial exploitation, and (3) the creation of powerful interest groups in the form of navies and armies that favored imperialism. Moreover, when territorial conflict over colonies escalated, imperial expansion could ultimately feed back into interpolity competition in Europe. I demonstrate these dynamics through systematic analyses of the rivalries between England and France (1689–1815) and between Imperial Germany and Great Britain (1871/1897–1918).
Journal of Historical Political Economy, Volume 2, Issue 2 Special Issue - The Political Economy of Empire: Articles Overview
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