To what extent has imperialism shaped international relations throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries?


To what extent has imperialism shaped international relations throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries?”


In simple terms, imperialism can be described as an ideology that influences a country or a nation to dominate another. This domination can be implemented directly by applying military force or indirectly through the control of social, political, and economic aspects. As a result, the primary manifestations of imperialism are inclusive of colonisation and neo-colonisation. In the 20th Century, colonisation was the main form of imperialism as the powerful nations such as Britain, France, Italy, the United States, and Germany assumed absolute control over underdeveloped nations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

Meanwhile, the 21st Century has neo-colonisation as its main form of imperialism; this concept is characterised by the continuous involvement of former colonial masters in their former territories. Neo-colonisation is also evident in the increasing involvement by emerging global powerhouses such as China in world politics (Gilpin 2016, 102).

Imperialism, thus, is a main determinant of the world order during any period because it dictates the relationship between the dominant and the dominated. This paper will discuss the extent to which imperialism has shaped international relations throughout the 20th and the 21st Centuries.

Imperialism in the 20th and 21st Century is mainly influenced by a country’s foreign policy. For superpowers and other established countries across the world, there is usually a desire to dominate others. In this regard, their foreign policies tend to constitute a mechanism through which they can utilise their economic and political might to fulfil their interest in different parts of the world.

This circumstance explains why some funding from the developed world to developing ones is accompanied by certain pre-conditions. In the Cold War era, financial help depended on the ideological bloc the benefiting company supported; this implies that the US and other western powers were more interested to help nations that supported the capitalist economic model while the Soviet Union and other nations in the Eastern bloc were more interested in countries that espoused the communist philosophy.

This premise can be illustrated by the sharp divisions in the Korean peninsula. South Korea and North Korea ought to a single unified country but their cold war affiliations have undermined their relationships over time. Because South Korea embraced a market economy, they continue to enjoy massive support from the western powers, more so the United States. On the other hand, North Korea that adopted the socialist ideology still enjoys support from nations that favoured communism.

This situation has intensified along anti-Americanism versus anti-Sovietism conflict over time. Even though the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) has had anti-Americanism as a major national agenda, the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) has had an internal asymmetry; while the state has pushed for anti-communism throughout, the civil society advocates for anti-Americanism (Kab Woo 2017, 292). This division is a clear example of imperialism perpetrated by ideological differences.

Imperialism has also shaped international relations through global entities that offer financial support to the developed world. It is unfortunate that international humanitarian entities such as the UN experience higher levels of control by the established veto powers. In this respect, they can use branches of such bodies to satisfy their interests. A typical case in point is Ghana’s rice market. In the early 1980s, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank agreed to give loans to Ghana if only it agreed to liberalise its economy.

When Ghana liberalised its markets, there was an influx of cheap imported rice that undermined the growth of its local rice farming. Ultimately, Ghana could not use the loan to effectively improve its rice farming status (Moore 2019). The associated pre-conditions to access loans allowed the established global powers to sell their rice in Ghana successfully; the fact that they sold at lower prices than local farmers ensured they outdid the local produce in the markets. This mechanism could strain international relations as some developing countries end up blaming the west for their failures or stagnated development.

Another way in which imperialism has shaped international relations centres on wars. Both World War I and World War II originated basically from the desire of certain nations to dominate others. In the Second World War, for instance, Germany, under Adolf Hitler, was the aggressor, driven by the belief that it was the most powerful force on earth and that it was its duty to lead the rest of the world into civilisation.

The climax of this obsession was characterised by Germany’s invasion on neutral Poland, which marked the onset of World War II. This war changed the nature of international relations completely because it exposed a need for global peace and stability, leading to the formation of the United Nations. Moreover, the United States rose to become a superpower, which it has remained to date; the emergence of the US was because European nations had been left financially weak as a result of the devastating war (Lee 2016, 152). Without the world wars, Germany would probably be a superpower; the US could have been a powerful nation but not the superpower it is today.

The manifestation of imperialism is also evident in the Libyan situation. Because the western world was interested in controlling Libyan resources, especially oil, they supported rebellions against the government. The advancement of the western imperialist agenda in Libya ultimately led to the ouster and subsequent execution of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. It is worth to note that, alongside supporting rebels financially, western forces such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) were directly involved in the Libyan Civil War.

Even though the civil war prompted the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, it has left the country (Libya) in a bad situation. Libya continues to experience instability characterised by fighting between rebel groups and migration to other countries (Pradella and Taghdisi Rad 2017, 2411). The Libyan situation has changed its perception and relationship with other nations throughout the world. Imperialism is also associated with the Iranian Revolution that lasted between 1978 and 1979.

Having been overwhelmed by the America-supported government of the Shah, the masses rose to overthrow it in favour of the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini leadership in 1979. The Iranian Revolution marked the end of formidable diplomatic relations between Iran and the US (Kamrava 2016, 73). Currently, the two countries relate indirectly through intermediaries.

Imperialism has also had a major influence on the post-independence politics in Sub-Saharan Africa, which have influenced international relations in several ways. In Congo, for instance, the struggle for domination between the western bloc and eastern bloc during the Cold War facilitated the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the rise of Mobutu Sese Seko. With Lumumba increasingly becoming associated with the Soviet Union (after the US and the UN refused to support against Katanga secessionists), the Belgian government with advisory help from the US, planned the end of Lumumba in 1961, in favour of Mobutu.

Even after the Mobutu’s rise to power, the west continued to support his dictatorship for the sake of imperialism. The Congo Crisis reinforces the premise that superpowers or imperialists have a huge say in international relations and would do anything to maintain the status quo (Irwin et al. 2015, 10). In this respect, any opposition towards imperialism will always be met with aggression from superpowers as a way to neutralise the opponent(s).

The latest illustration of imperialism is embodied by the Venezuelan situation. As a result of varied interests, the US has been involved in Venezuela in different ways. One notable expression of American imperialism in Venezuela was in the 2002 coup when the US attempted to replace Hugo Chavez with Pedro Carmona. Despite failing in the attempt, the US now seems determined to usurp Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro with Juan Guiado, following the recent disputed general elections.

The American involvement in Venezuela has had significant implications on international relations given that some nations support the removal of Maduro while others side with him (Maduro) (Gilbert 2019). Countries that oppose Maduro’s legitimacy include the US, Germany, and even Haiti while those that recognise Maduro’s legitimacy include China and Russia. The decision of China and Russia to side with Maduro at the expense of the US clearly reveals the existence of imperialism in the Venezuelan issue. If handled ineffectively, the Venezuelan Crisis has the potential to cause global tension, which could shape international relations for many decades.

International relations are a product of imperialism considering that most powerful countries in the world control global affairs. China, for instance, has grown into a global powerhouse as a result of its successful implementation of state capitalism. To dominate other nations, especially developing ones, China has embarked on partnerships with different governments for development purposes. Presently, the developing world owes China billions of dollars in debt; this situation is already shifting allegiances from the west to China (Gilpin 2016, 131). The continuous advancement of China could effectively shift the balance of power towards the East. To maintain the status quo, the United States needs to act urgently to curtail the shift.

The association between imperialism and international relations is also characterised by language. An introspective look at international relations reveals that the languages of status or prestige belong to imperialists. This status means that language is the most tool of domination. In global conventions, some of the languages recognised include English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese. In common, these languages belong to imperial nations (Gilpin 2016, 145). The existence of imperialism, therefore, will always lead to unequal global relations since the powerful, established nations will continue to dominate their weaker counterparts, less developed counterparts in virtually every aspect.

It seems nearly impossible to separate imperialism from colonisation and neo-colonisation, which shape international relations. This premise means that there would be probably no international relations without colonialism and neo-colonialism. Despite being legally sovereign, the hegemony of the powerful states is still evident in various happenings in the developing. In presidential elections, for instance, there have been widespread allegations about the interference by imperialists.

In Africa, Cambridge Analytica, a British firm, has been accused of attempting to manipulate elections results in Nigeria and Kenya; while they are said to might have been used to help the Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, to secure re-election in 2015, it is alleged that it helped to facilitate the re-election of the Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, in 2017 (The Conversation. 2019). This allegation strengthens the claim imperialism happens in nearly every dimension including technology; any sort of domination influences international relations.

Imperialism has also shaped international relations through the war on terrorism. Powerful nations such as the United States have supported their less powerful colleagues to institute measures to counter terrorism. Imperialism has also enhanced the direct confrontation of the terrorist group by powerful nations in a bid to restore peace and stability. Examples of countries in which imperialism has aided direct war against terror groups include Afghanistan and Syria (Gilpin 2016, 173). Imperialism also boosts cordial international relations through interventions during natural calamities such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and seismic sea waves as in the case of Haiti and Japan.

The paper has discussed how imperialism has shaped international relations in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Evidently, imperialism fuelled colonisation, which resulted in neo-colonisation that continues to shape international relations today. In the post-colonial era, imperialists have continued to participate in the affairs of their former colonies and other less developed nations through financial assistance and military intervention; in return, the benefiting countries are obliged to show loyalty. It is apparent that imperialism has its positive and negative implications. While it enhances cohesion, it breeds a culture of dependency as a way to facilitate the domination of the developing world by developed nations. With over-dependence, the developed world is bound to interfere with the sovereignty of developing countries, which is a major determinant of international relations.



  1. Gilbert, C. 2019. U.S. imperialism is still “misunderestimating” Venezuela. [online] People’s World. Available at: [Accessed 26 Feb. 2019].
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  3. Irwin, R., James, L. and Leake, E., 2015. Sovereignty in the Congo Crisis. Decolonization and the Cold War: negotiating independence. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  4. Kamrava, M., 2016. Revolution in Iran: The Roots of Turmoil. Routledge.
  5. Koo, K.W. 2017, “The Discursive Origins of Anti-Americanism in the Two Koreas”, Asian Perspective,  41, no. 2, pp. 291-307.
  6. Lee, L.X.H., 2016. World War Two: Crucible of the Contemporary World-Commentary and Readings: Crucible of the Contemporary World-Commentary and Readings. Routledge.
  7. Moore, C. 2019. Ghana pays price for west’s rice subsidies. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 26 Feb. 2019].
  8. Pradella, L. and Taghdisi Rad, S., 2017. Libya and Europe: imperialism, crisis and migration. Third World Quarterly38(11), pp.2411-2427.
  9. The Conversation. 2019. Claims about Cambridge Analytica’s role in Africa should be taken with a pinch of salt. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Feb. 2019].

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