The driving forces behind European expansion overseas can be seen as both political and economic. The past century has seen numerous theories emerge and develop on the causes of such expansion. From the first political diplomatic interpretations and classic economic theories of Lenin and Hobson of the first half of the century. To the more recent variants on these original theories: expansion driven by extreme mass nationalism, or by the profound economic power imbalance for example. Theories have often tried to give prominence to economic forces over political ones or vice versa, however, it seems these forces were impossibly intertwined and could not have worked in isolation. The driving forces behind European expansion overseas appear to be a combination of political and economic factors in partnership. It thus seems plausible to look first at these political and economic forces individually, and afterward how they worked in combination.
Classic political interpretations have previously claimed European expansion was a phenomenon of power politics, whilst attaching only secondary importance to nationalist thinking. To Friedjung, for example, ceaseless rivalry among the great powers drove expansion,1 whilst Schumpeter saw expansion as a deliberate policy to increase power, prestige, and security of the home country.2 Contemporary opinion certainly supported this stance, for example, Otto Hinze stated in 1907: ‘The fight for great-power status is the true essence of the imperialist movement.’3
Although this classic political theory still enjoys credit amongst Western historians, the emphasis has shifted. Prominence is given, not to diplomatic history and the ‘the struggle for hegemony between the major industrial powers’,4 but to the mass movements of nationalism within these states. Whilst international power politics certainly had an accelerating and even self-generating role on European expansion, it was little of an expla…
European Expansion Essay