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New Imperialism

This was written for Washington State University’s HIST-121.

… would you argue that the policies and actions initiated by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War represented a new kind of imperialism?


To answer this question requires at first, an operational understanding of what imperialism’s function is. Once this is understood, categories of behaviors may be generated to judge fit with respect to characteristics of policies and actions of nation states. Thankfully, the narrow criteria of “United States”, “Soviet Union”, and “cold war”, gives a limited territory both spatially and temporally to find congruence between behavioral categories of imperialism, and behavioral categories of policies and actions. The policies and actions initiated and followed through by both the United States and Soviet Union during the cold war, do in fact, represent not a new kind of imperialism, yet where “nation” obfuscates the true imperialists.

Operationalizing Imperialism

Stepping back, “imperialism” as a concept came about in the mid-1800’s.[1] Imperialism referred traditionally to “domination of European powers—and latter the United States and Japan as well—over subject lands in the larger world.”[2] In this definition, domination is a very loose term, yet Bentley, Ziegler, & Streets-Salter mention that it came by “force of arms… trade, investment, business activities that enabled imperial powers to profit from subject societies and influence their affairs without going to the trouble of exercising direct political control.[3] With this definition, we now have characteristics of imperialism, with respect to a formal and allusions to an informal definition. Ultimately it is not us, that has this definition, it is merely perception, and this is critical to differentiate for an analyst as shall be seen.

Analysis of Nation-State Behavior During War

It is said that the cold war was a confrontation “for global influence” between “liberal democracy and capitalism… and international communism and one party rule”.[7] The Marshal Plan was interpreted by the Soviet Union as capitalist imperialism.[8] The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the creation of the Warsaw Pact solidified military might around capitalistic democracy and communistic party rule sets.[9] The attempt to excise internal “communist sympathizers” during the McCarthy era of the 1950s exemplifies earlier imperialist behaviors hijacking religious judgement with tools of state.[10] The same could be said of East Germany’s efforts under Communist ideology utilizing the Stasi to excise democratic capitalists. The nuclear arms race itself is a race for dominant military weaponry.[11]. History speaks of détente, in the reduction of hostility, yet the remainder of the end of the Cold War was met with Regan’s “low intensity conflict”, largely economic under the cover of covert paramilitary actions.


One of the best concepts that demonstrates a “new imperialism” is Eisenhower’s own concept of “domino” theory.[12] It is supportive as an interchangeable indicator for what occurred during Spanish imperialist conquest of South America, and overall European conquest of lands around the world. Bentley, Ziegler, & Streets-Salter’s recognition of imperialism’s use of arms (i.e., nuclear weapons) trade (i.e., markets), investment (i.e., corporations), and business activities (i.e. multinational, non-governmental organizations) applies here. Unfortunately, the text does not provide the numerous examples of capitalist economic weapons deployed during the Cold War (i.e., CIA, Dow Chemical, and United Fruit/Dole), so these cannot be cited. There are numerous examples of trade, investment, and business activities of both governments of the United States and Soviet Union. The United States’ respective policy supported “at arm’s length” “private” businesses armed with government policies, intelligence paving inroads, and quasi-government actions (i.e., Federal Reserve, World Bank, etc.), supporting an environment of “plausible deniability”. The Soviet Union’s respective policy supported direct “single party” “state” organizations armed with their own militaries, intelligence communities, etc. in much the same way. The United States and Soviet Union therefore meet the criterion of imperialist behaviors where the only difference is both are in service to ideology rather than personality. In final assessment, one could argue that new-imperialists are businesses and brands of personalities and cultures, either criminal or extortive, flying under a stealth skin of “nation”.[13]


[1] Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective Volume 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015), 748.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, 636.
[5] Ibid, 801.
[6] Ibid, 803-804; 805. 
[7] Ibid, 875.
[8] Ibid, 877.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid, 878.
[11] Ibid, 879.
[12] Ibid.
[13] For reference post course only, author has references available.