20 Biggest Pros and Cons of American Imperialism

In the slogan, “Make American Great Again,” Donald Trump borrows thoughts from Ronald Reagan about making the United States a top priority. It is an attitude of America coming first. When these influences are extended culturally, economically, or militarily to other countries, that becomes American imperialism.

The idea of American imperialism is based on the concept that the United States is better, in some way, than other countries. The U.S. sees itself as a bastion for democracy, liberty, and freedom. If other nations do not support those concepts, then America does its best to influence others toward them.

From the days of westward expansion, through the Age of Imperialism, to modern politics, you can still see American Imperialism in action. Here are the biggest pros and cons to such a policy.

List of the Pros of American Imperialism

1. It spread modern technology throughout the world.

The United States has been a technological leader since its founding as a nation. The ideas and concepts have helped to make society safer, provide better communication tools, and even modernize sanitation systems. At the same time, the U.S. economy introduced industrialization to the smaller nations which it helped to influence, helping to modernize the local economy and bring more value to it.

2. It provides better health care access.

From a competition standpoint, American healthcare is one of the best options in the world today. Imperialism takes the knowledge from this competitive market and applies it to nations in need. When the West African Ebola virus epidemic struck in 2013, medical practices and workers from the United States helped to contain the outbreak.

3. It can increase farm production.

In the late 1800’s, the economy of Hawaii was struggling. Sugar growers on the islands, mostly immigrants from the United States, were negatively affected by an 1890 tariff on sugar. Their sugar was being undersold at the market, which was limiting production and the value of the local economy. The farmers knew that if they became part of the U.S., then the tariff would go away.

4. It has helped to create a global defense network.

The United States spends more on its military and defense than anyone in the world. It spends twice as much as the next several top spenders combined. As of 2018, there are about 800 military bases that are maintained throughout the world by the U.S. with locations in more than 70 countries or territories. The bases range in size from major complexes to radar operations. This comes at a cost, according to Politico, of nearly $300 billion per year, when warzone costs are also considered.

5. It encouraged cultural exchanges.

Before the United States, the concept of democracy was one that was foreign to the rest of the world. Only a handful of democracies had even been attempted and none on the scale of America. Imperialism from the United States helped to create new pockets of democracy in areas where the idea has taken off. Whenever dictators have fallen around the world, the United States has been there to support a government with democratic concepts. Since the 1980s, this has been pursued rapidly and more than $700 million annually is spent on the promotion of democracy.

6. It helped America extend its territories.

The most notable example of American imperialism is the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. That gave the U.S. access to all harbors, military equipment, public property, ports, and other possessions of the local government. Puerto Rico is another example of the U.S. coming to rule in an imperialistic manner. By being proactive in an imperialistic manner, the goal of America was to create a level of hemispheric security so that other nations would not provide local security threats.

7. It can provide more products and market access.

Although some in the United States sought imperialistic efforts to match that of Europe for simple territory acquisition, there was a recognized need for more product variety in the U.S. market. Expanding into the Caribbean provided markets for investment. Sugar was often the resource that drove the U.S. toward expansion, though plantation crops, like pineapples, were also a priority.

8. It improves educational resources.

American imperialism helped to bring new cultures toward modern educational standards. Cultures were able to learn global languages, allowing for easier communication between cultures. Being able to read and write allowed individuals to begin creating new goals for their families. People could begin achieving more because they had more access to knowledge. With better access to diversity, it became possible for countries to broaden their horizons, become stronger, and become more accepting.

9. It created needed outposts.

The United States often focused on the Pacific for imperialistic efforts because shipping lanes to Asia required stopovers. Even though many of these destinations have been granted autonomy or independence over the past 100 years, there are still some holdovers from the imperialistic outreach of the 19th century. American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands are all examples.

10. It provided access to needed raw materials.

Not all imperialistic efforts were based on invasion-like principles. Some expansion efforts occurred through financial transactions. The Alaska Purchase is one such example. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million. Not only did this purchase provide even more hemispheric security, but it helped the U.S. gain access to a plethora of raw materials that are still obtained to this day.

11. It sets the stage for a global society.

The internet has made the world a much smaller place. American imperialism may not always be seen in a positive light, but it has set the stage for a global society to be created one day. With defensive and supportive spheres of influence around the world, there is more stability in the world today than ever before – even with the ongoing threat of terrorism that exists.

List of the Cons of American Imperialism

1. It creates conflicts that are sometimes violent.

Not everyone wants to be influenced by the United States. There is a sense of national pride that exists for every nation. When America comes in, there is a perception that it is looking for cheap labor and access to natural resources. They wanted a specific government, of which the United States may not approve. If enough people opposed the influences of America, conflict and protest occurred, sometimes violently. The Philippines fought the U.S. for 4 years after the Spanish-American War for their freedom.

2. It created the foundation for exploitation.

Many have been hesitant to practice imperialism in the United States since the country was once a colony itself. Yet, the need for raw materials, resources, and defensive capabilities forced the hand of many, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The desire to have those materials often led to exploitation of local resources for the benefit of the homeland without any real benefit to local workers.

3. It isn’t cheap.

Expanding outward always comes at a cost. The United States currently spends almost $1 trillion every year on international aid, defense costs, transportation, and general assistance. Over 200 countries receive aid from the United States in some way every year. There are 5 countries which receive over $1 billion in aid each year: Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan in direct transfers. That doesn’t include defense spending, equipment purchases, and other forms of assistance.

4. It can lead to discrimination.

When the sugar growers in Hawaii decided that they needed a change in government, they got together to overthrow the local monarchy. They even had U.S. military forces come to support their efforts, even though military aid had not been authorized. Whenever an occupying or colonial power comes into a nation, those who are already living there are often treated differently. They don’t become equals with Americans. Puerto Rico is a modern example of this. Residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens, but they do not receive the same rights or representation as those born in the homeland.

5. It can discredit local belief systems.

As part of the American “takeover” of the Hawaiian Islands, Christian missionaries traveled to the Pacific to convert the local population. In the history of humanity, religious travelers are often one of the first people to go into new locations. This is done for altruistic reasons by many, but it also sets the stage for a new culture and practices to be accepted. It isn’t as easy to resist imperialism if you share similar beliefs and traits with the new country that is coming into power.

6. It encourages slavery.

In the early days of the United States, imperialism encouraged slavery because cheap labor was required to gain market access for labor intensive crops. Westward expansion in the 19th century in the U.S. is an excellent example of this. Cotton crops would not have been as valuable to the local economy without slave labor. Although slavery isn’t outwardly practiced today throughout most of the world, a majority of workers still live on the equivalent of $2 per day or less to support cheap products for the U.S. market.

7. It creates an unhealthy dependence.

This is the foundation of the “America First” argument that has come from the Trump Administration. The United States is spending more on nations than it is receiving in return. That is what happens when imperialism is the foundation of outward expansion. If Americans are providing for the defense, governing structure, economy basics, and virtually every other aspect of local society, then a dependence on that aid is built. To maintain that location, these supports must be kept in place or local supporters must be trained to do the work independently.

8. It creates global wars from local conflicts.

Territories obtained through imperialism become part of the identity of the country. Guam may be its own island, but it is directly associated with the United States. That is why it is a target of North Korea and its threat of missile attack. History has taught us that imperialism creates new borders that can turn local conflicts into global wars. That was the justification for American imperialism in the first place. The U.S. felt like there was a threat from Spain because they held the Philippines in the late 19th century. Establishing colonies to combat that threat became necessary.

9. It puts local populations at risk for new disease.

When the first colonists came to North America from Europe, the local tribal populations were exposed to small pox and other diseases for the first time. They had no immunities, so many died because of the imperialistic activities. Although this risk is somewhat minimized because of vaccine technologies, imperialism actually works in reverse today. If someone travels outside of the U.S., they may be required to receive inoculations to prevent dangerous disease from returning with them.

The biggest pros and cons of American imperialism suggest that outward expansion can be helpful, but often more so for the United States than for the targeted location. There are great benefits, like better security and technology access, but there are disadvantages as well. Cultures tend to lose their uniqueness through imperialism and they lose their freedom of self-governing.