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World Civilizations and Imperialism Essay

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Updated: May 5th, 2021

According to the article, other than ‘lateral pressure,’ what are the two schools of thought that have promoted theories in an attempt to explain imperialism or imperial expansion?

The article discusses two theories explaining imperialism: the economic theory of imperialism advanced by Hobson and Lenin and the realists’ explanation promoted by Morgenthau, Niebuhr, and Aron.1

The first theory regards imperialism as a consequence of advanced capitalism and was first explained by J. Hobson and later amended by V. I. Lenin. The former developed the conception of colonialism as the reflection of unfulfilled democracy promise and regarded the colonies as investment opportunities. He believed that capital was sent abroad owing to fast-paced capital accumulation in Britain.2

Lenin’s theory fundamentally agrees with Hobson’s though he was more focused on monopoly capitalism resulting from the merger of industrial and banking capital. He argued that imperialism could not be eliminated by reform (unlike Hobson, who believed in the power of liberal democratic values). While Hobson emphasized the influence of imperialistic coalition, Lenin shifted the focus of attention from the scarcity of capital in the developing countries to cheap labor and new markets that they promised. He claimed that the imposition of imperialism was explained by the needs of monopoly capitalism.3

The economic theory overstates the importance of economic incentives of imperialism as much as other theories underestimate their significance. Moreover, both authors equaled imperialism to colonialism while ignoring the imperialism of free trade.4

The realist theory advanced by Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Raymond Aron relies on the primacy of politics in the formation of imperialism. The basic propositions of theory run as follows: 1) imperialism derives from the innate desire of people to dominate; 2) all powerful nations tend to become imperialistic; 3) imperialism is fueled by the global anarchic system; 4) the government does not act as a supporter of a certain class but rather as a defender of national interests. Imperialism is viewed as a political act par excellence, the major goal of which is to decrease vulnerability of the nation (both political and strategic): It manifests the balance of power aimed to achieve a favorable alteration of the status quo.5

The term “lateral pressure” refers to what exactly?

Lateral pressure is a propensity of states to expand their area of activity thereby affecting territories beyond established limits. According to the article, any society that needs more resources will launch a campaign to secure them from abroad. Thus, “lateral pressure” is a term used to designate the nation’s use of its capabilities in order to obtain foreign resources. However, the term is not identical with imperialism as there are a lot of other ways to acquire resources.6

How do we get to the point where “lateral pressure” in whatever form it takes, becomes a necessity?

According to the authors of the “lateral pressure” theory, N. Choucri and R. North, there are several basic circumstances that drive a nation to lateral pressure. First and foremost, this policy directly depends on the size and composition of the population as the key determinant of consumption. The larger the population is – the more resources it consumes. As soon as the state runs out of domestic supplies, it is put under pressure to search for outer sources of raw materials and therefore has to resort to lateral pressure. Another influential factor is the level of technological advancement of the nation. The development of modern technologies requires a large quantity and variety of resources necessary to maintain a high level of living standards. The consumption of domestic resources increases dramatically; moreover, the nation is in need of rare materials necessary for manufacturing, medicine, safety provision, and other important aspects of life. Increased consumption and growing needs that cannot be satisfied internally deprive the nation of its self-sufficiency.

The authors of the theory particularly emphasize that even those innovations that allow the state to conserve scarce raw materials or can offer alternatives threaten with the increase in demand in the long run since new possible applications of the product may be discovered. The growing need for resources required for further advancement of technologies depends on the amount of resources that the state currently possesses and can dispose of. Thus, Choucri and North, propose the following formula that demonstrates the dependence of the demand for foreign materials on the correlation of demographic variables, technology, and availability of domestic resources. The relationship looks as follows: demand for foreign resources= population X technology/ availability of domestic resources. It is also stressed that, regardless of their regime, all nations are not autarkic in their consumption of resources, which implies that the prosperity of the nation largely depends on its ability to exert lateral pressure when the demand for resources tends to increase. 7

If we consider oil a desirable consumer commodity, could we use oil to partially explain European efforts to gain control (directly or indirectly) of places such as Iraq and Iran as having been driven by the demands of new technologies and population growth, that then manifest themselves in attempts at imperial control?

Despite the fact that strategy played the key role in the European conquest of the Middle East through imperialism, we should not ignore the fact that technological development coupled with the population growth created a massive increase in the demand, which aggravated the situation and created an ultimate need for new areas of influence. In the period between 1870 and 1913, Europe experienced its Second Industrial Revolution, which brought about drastic changes of all spheres of life. Sciences, technologies, and industries were developing rapidly; they revolutionized the people’s view of the future of the nation as well as their understanding of the quality of life.8

The internal combustion engine, invented in 1885 by Gottlieb Daimler, was one of the key technological innovations that drove Europe to seek for new areas of expansion in order to acquire resources that it lacked. The spread of imperialism in the Middle East can therefore be explained by the attraction created by vast oil fields since oil was indeed a desirable consumer commodity.9 The problem is that not only the automobile with its combustion engine required fuel to move but a lot of other machinery produced during the Industrial Revolution needed oil to keep its moving parts lubricated – thus, European efforts to gain control of places such as Iraq and Iran are quite comprehensible taking into the account these circumstances.

Is imperialism the only possible manifestation of “lateral pressure?” or are their other ways that lateral pressure can manifest itself?

Although the theory of “lateral pressure” promoted by Choucri and North seems logical and consistent, the article argues that it is rather challenging to estimate its utility in the modern context. That happens mainly because it turned out that lateral pressure could manifest itself not only in imperialism or colonialism but also in a number of other, non-violent and non-imperialistic ways. These modes of lateral pressure are gaining importance with the current trend for globalization, bringing about the necessity to expand the network of international trade. This implies that high lateral pressure as well as a growing need for materials may arise from sources other than imperialistic and often indicates peaceful kinds of foreign engagement.10 Besides the trade, there are also other dynamics of international cooperation. Lateral pressure can manifest itself in multilateralism, which means that states can coordinate their activities in order to manage disorder on the global scale protecting interests of other states and assisting them in the pursuit of wealth and influence.


Cain, Peter J., and Antony G. Hopkins. British Imperialism: 1688-2015. London: Routledge, 2016.

Clapp, Brian William. An Environmental History of Britain since the Industrial Revolution. London: Routledge, 2014.

Fouquet, Roger. “Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries.” Journal of Economic Literature 52, no. 4 (2014): 1194-1196.

Menon, Rajan, and John R. Oneal. “Explaining Imperialism: The State of the Art as Reflected in Three Theories.” Polity 19, no. 2 (1986): 169-193.


  1. Rajan Menon and John R. Oneal, “Explaining Imperialism: The State of the Art as Reflected in Three Theories,” Polity 19, no. 2 (1986): 170.
  2. Ibid., 171.
  3. Ibid., 171-174.
  4. Peter J. Cain and Antony G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: 1688-2015 (London: Routledge, 2014), 25-26.
  5. Menon and Oneal, “Explaining Imperialism: The State of the Art as Reflected in Three Theories,” 178-182.
  6. Ibid., 186.
  7. Ibid., 186-187.
  8. Brian William Clapp, An Environmental History of Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (London: Routledge, 2014), 50.
  9. Roger Fouquet, “Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries,” Journal of Economic Literature 52, no. 4 (2014): 1195.
  10. Menon and Oneal, “Explaining Imperialism: The State of the Art as Reflected in Three Theories,” 190.
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