What ended the age of imperialism?

After WW2 I believe Truman said he did not want anything from the losers except a path towards global peace & prosperity.

Also it seems during modern times that the countries we occupy are mainly done to oust dictatorships. Some would argue that there are other hidden agendas, but even so I see a sharp contrast between economic exploitation & outright invasion followed by annexation.

Personally I wouldn’t mind being able to go to a few more English speaking places with a US quality of infrastructure, but I guess my values are outdated at this point. What has caused the major world powers to lose interest in conquering foreign lands?

When all countries finally announced they were no longer open to colonization (early 1800s?)


I don’t know, what I’m curious about is why was is so rapid after WW2, a lot of it occurred from 1945-1980. I’m guessing support from communist nations like the USSR and China helped, because nations trying to rebel had moral, financial, economic and military support.

When it became too expensive.

World War II was a big factor. On the one hand, it showed that the colonial powers were not invulnerable to military defeat which encouraged rebellion in the colonies. And on the other hand, the devastation of the war meant a lot of resources were consumed in rebuilding Europe and that meant the colonial powers couldn’t afford to spend the resources maintaining their empires. And the gripping hand was that opposition to imperialism was one of the few issues the two new superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, agreed on.

It was different for different nations. For Japan and Italy, WW2 killed off their empires. France and Portugal fought costly guerilla wars in Southeast Asia and Africa, until a combination of military failures and domestic political changes forced their hands.
The British Empire’s fall is the most complex. Ireland, India, and Palestine were all let go by the British when the countries became too hard to govern. After they left, virtually all of the empire left was economically backward areas that were significant drains on Britain’s resources. With Britain in economic trouble after WW2 and clearly in need of scaling back its military commitments, there just wasn’t much point to keeping them. From what I understand, the African countries liberated in 1959-60 had few organized movements for independence; they just weren’t wanted by the British anymore.

You’re squashing too many individual strands of history into a single question. Different countries halted their colonization programs at different times for different reasons.

WWI was mainly a clash of empires. The British Empire and the French Empire vs. the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. The losing empires were mostly dismantled. The Balkans became a bunch of independent countries, the Middle East became mandates and monarchies with foreign oversight. Africa stayed mostly the same.

The colonies that remained resented this. Independence movements rose in many countries, notably India. The European powers hated to give up anything more because the war had bankrupted them and they needed the cheap resources.

WWII basically reinforced all the previous trends. All the German colonies were released at their defeat. The British had made too many statements about freedom and independence to keep their empire, especially while loudly denouncing all of eastern Europe under Communist domination. They tried to arrange a years-long transition but India forced it in 1948. Everything fell apart after that.

Other countries, though, tried to retain their colonies. Vietnam won a bloody independence in 1954, the Belgian Congo not until 1960. With no intention of letting them go, the countries didn’t do any proper preparation and chaos lingered for decades.

There were large gaps between the words they mouthed and the reality they allowed. Freely elected governments were subverted, overthrown, or overridden by the Europeans, sometimes abetted by the U.S. Almost anything could be excused by the threat of Communism. At the same time nobody in the West could do anything but proclaim the end of imperialism while accusing the USSR of continuing it. By today, they even sorta kinda mean it.

Well, yes, except that, the countries that lost WWI and WWII never had more than rudimentary overseas empires (which may have a good deal to both with why they lost, and with why the wars happened in the first place). The Austro-Hungarian Empire was all in Europe and contiguous. It “broke up” rather than breaking away from a colonial ruling country. Much the same could be said about the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, by far the largest overseas empires were those of Britain and France, who both wound up on the winning side in both world wars. (Admittedly, France was crushed, occupied and humiliated for most of WWII, but they still wound up controlling about a quarter of Germany by the end.) The overseas Empires of Germany and Italy were negligible by comparison.

I think the real answer is that in the wake of WWII, the European powers lost both their economic and military dominance to the new superpowers of the USA and USSR, and both the USA and USSR were (for very different reasons) ideologically opposed to direct colonialism of the sort that traditionally had been practiced by the European powers. Both preferred indirect, if sometimes very strong, political and economic influence over their client nations, rather than directly imposed rule. This is more consistent, both, on the one hand, with America’s consciousness of its origin as a breakaway colony, and, on the other, with basic principles of Marxism.

In a sense, although they did not ever really have very much in the way of empires, both the USA and USSR were empires, and USA and the Russian Federation still are today. However, they were not and are not the sort of overseas, colonial empires of the sort that Britain and France, and to a lesser extent certain other European countries, once had. (They are more akin to the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires than to the one-time empires of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, or even Belgium or Germany.)

njtt, I agree with your final assessment that although empires of the traditional sort do not exist in the modern world, the USA and the Russian Federation are still empires in many important economic and political senses.

I do not view empires as intrinsically bad things, but agree that in practice they are almost always terrible things. I think limited political and economic influence on states while allowing them autonomous rule, as the US and Russia do today can be good for the world overall, and good for the people living in those countries.

The rise of Communism had a lot to do with it.
Russia was ready, able & willing to train rebels. Arm them, too, sometimes.

Basically. WWII was largely an attempt by Germany and Japan to return to the pre-WWI trend of “empire building”. But I think the destruction of both world wars and the introduction of the atomic bomb finally signaled to the world that building global empires through conquest and colonization was now largely impractical. You would end up destroying the nations you intended to rule or be destroyed by your rivals.

The national independence movements post WWII were largely a result of the major empires no longer having the resources and means to maintain their old colonies.

Post WWII, replaced the empire model with the “superpower” model. Counties like the USA and USSR wielding vast political, military and economic influence over the rest of the world, but without coming into direct conflict with each other.

With the collapse of the USSR, the USA still wants to cling to the old superpower model of fighting enemies through smaller proxy wars. However, with the rise of globalism, the national model itself has become less important. American’s enemies are no longer nations, but conflicting ideologies. And as Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, you can’t fight ideologies by invading countries.

They had ambitions for much larger empires, as well as resentment toward France and Britain for the size of theirs.

It’s not the size, though. The question concerns attitudes toward empires. The empires involved were mostly contiguous, but that didn’t matter at all to the people concerned. The Ottoman Empire, e.g., covered a dozen areas that are now modern countries. The world saw that breakup as a good thing, even if other powers tried to repossess them.

This is true, but it’s the result of a decades-long process toward greater independence. You’re putting effect before the cause.

And both the USSR (by via of Russia’s “spheres of influence” in the Balkans and the Asian Great Game) and the USA (through its experience with the “banana republics”) already had experience at the lower cost and nearly equal efficiency of being *hegemonic, *as opposed to directly colonial/imperial, powers.

Alas, since the colonial powers being opposed usually were “our” allies, the USA had to pass on itself sponsoring and grooming the “national liberation” movements. One wonders.

Kudos for the Niven and Pournelle reference.

Sure, but there’s no need to concentrate solely on the losers when thinking of the effects of WW2. The Japanese may have lost, but their wartime occupation of European colonies in the Pacific seriously undermined those empires.

What really ended imperialism was the realization that the colonies cost more than they were worth. Take France-France had huge areas in Africa (French West Africa, French Equatorial Africa, Djibouti, etc.); but these places yielded very little-yo had to station troops there to deal with rebellions, and most of the time, the natives were hostile.
Germany (before WWI) had colonies in Africa, which were also almost worthless. Even in the heyday of imperialism (mid-1800s), British PM Disraeli said that “these wretched colonies are a millstone around our necks”.
But the last colonial empire (Portugal) lasted the longest-and it was immensely profitable for Portugal (which is why they fought hard to hang on to them).
Now we have a new age of imperialism (China)…which is not based upon colonizing countries-merely extracting resources from them (whilst using them as markets for manufactured goods).

One thing overlooked, I think, is that the overall trend of (Western) history has been towards greater progressiveness, as a very broad generalization. There’s been a steady trend in Western countries (not universal, not without resistance) : abolishing slavery, allowing religious freedom, universal suffrage, increased democracy, increased scientific thought (especially social sciences like psychology), public education, labour laws, environmental laws … releasing colonial control can be seen as another facet in the overall gaudy bauble of Western liberalism.

tldr: It’s just possible that the post-imperial people are just better people than the imperial ones, in some respects.