It seems obvious to start by looking at the first few lines on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia on globalisation

Globalization or globalisation is the process of interaction and integration among people, companies, and governments worldwide. As a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, globalization is considered by some as a form of capitalist expansion which entails the integration of local and national economies into a global, unregulated market economy.

Wikipedia on imperialism

Imperialism is policy or ideology of extending a nation's rule over foreign nations, often by military force or by gaining political and economic control of other areas. Imperialism was both normal and common worldwide throughout recorded history, the earliest examples dating from the mid-third millennium BC, diminishing only in the late 20th century.

Based on that, the main difference seems to be that imperialism is something from the past whereas globalisation is from the present. In addition to that, imperialism seems to be more of a one-way street (as in, one party profits and the other loses), whereas globalisation is (at least from the Wikipedia definition) more of a two-way street. Finally, the use of military force seems to be mentioned only in the definition of imperialism, but it's not always mentioned (i.e. the use of the word often).

For example, today's globalisation could be deemed similar because we all live under the economic control of China (because most of our stuff is made there) and the United States has a lot of influence through many of it's companies operating globally (e.g. Americanization)

To what extent are the two different? Is there more to it or are the two rather similar?

4 Answers 4


The answer is in the quoted passages you've posted. Imperialism is a policy put forth by a nation, whereas globalization is a global phenomenon. Imperialism is unilateral and globalization is multilateral, as you alluded to.

Specifically, globalization is more of a result of a variety of multilateral organizations, treaties, and policies by many governments worldwide. The Bretton Woods Conference was the beginning of the more globalized economy that we have today. The goal was a more stable international system of finance, the globalized economy developed relatively organically over the next several decades.

Additionally, imperialism is historically understood to be a military policy by nature. In the post-WWII era this changed for a variety of reasons. Explicit military control of another country was no longer seen as acceptable as it may have been in the colonial area, and perhaps more importantly the Cold War had begun. Not only could the US and the Soviets not easily impose influence upon a country inside the others sphere of influence without potentially world-ended repercussions, culture was a large factor in the cold war and neither side wanted to be so easily cast as a brute. Though both nations did continue to display imperialistic tendencies towards countries in their respective "backyards" (Soviets in eastern Europe and central Asia, the US in central and southern America). What may be more relevant to this question were the less explicit policies of exerting control over foreign countries that became known as Neocolonialism.

I would posit that there are two types of neocolonialism, intentional and unintentional in respect to the countries that stand to benefit. The growth of the economic influence of a country and thus the spread of its multinational companies and their respective influence is, in essence, an organic process. It is not necessarily always a good one for all involved, but it has in aggregate been beneficial globally. It is the intentional abuse of this influence by a country that can hide imperialism behind the guise of a globalized financial system. This is something the United States did its fair share of at the zenith of the cold war, and something that China is doing today. The general strategy is this: approach a less-developed country and give estimates on the economic viability of [large infrastructure project], knowing that the estimate isn't accurate, have the country take out a loan to pay for the project, the great power builds the project, the economic gains do not materialize at the scale promised, and that country is now in debt to the great power. The global financial framework legitimizes this type of exchange, in which now the great power has undue influence over the less-developed country.

To answer your question concisely: Imperialism and globalization are not the same. Imperialism is an explicit policy by a country of control of another, whereas globalization is the mostly organic result of several decades of growing connections between the economies of the world. However, the financial framework that has come about from globalization has the potential to be abused by economically powerful nations to exert undue influence over less-developed countries.

  • 3
    You name a number of good points, and I especially like how you say globalization has the potential to develop to allow abuse by bigger countries. Though, just to play devil's advocate, isn't that the same with imperialism? The countries that started off stronger (at some point, e.g. ships and bullets) had the means to conquer other countries and become even stronger. That sounds very similar to stronger companies (and in turn countries) getting stronger whereas the other countries are unable to compete. Or it could be that that's just a Darwinist thing that could be applied to most systems.
    – JJJ
    Apr 18, 2019 at 21:27

After reading your comment below Gramatik's answer, you seem to be asking if the outcomes of globalization aren't effectively the same as those of imperialism. I think this is a more difficult question because imperialism often increased trade, a hallmark of globalisation. The real question is what kind of trade.

The first forms of globalisation are linked in part to the great empires that, by politically unifying very vast and disparate territories, enhanced the movement of goods and people across continents. From the 6th to the 4th century BC, merchants crisscrossed the vast Persian Empire, which spread from the Mediterranean to the River Ganges and covered a mosaic of peoples and civilisations. Its successor, Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire, also linked the East and the West, pushing the borders even farther apart. This period of cultural integration of disparate peoples (demonstrated by the Great Library of Alexandria) also spread trading techniques, like the use of currency. The city-states of the post-Macedonian Hellenistic civilisation took advantage of the expanded borders and continued to engage heavily in (essentially maritime) trade. [...]

Trade grew considerably worldwide thanks to metropolises and their colonies, but the major powers jealously defended their trading areas by applying protectionist measures, according to the then dominant political economy theory – mercantilism. This doctrine assumed that a nation-state’s power depended on its reserves of precious metals. To grow richer, the state – at the heart of the economy – had to develop international trade and increase its exports by exploiting the resources of colonial territories. But the tariff schedule forced certain colonies to trade solely with their ruling kingdom and so the international trading posts on different continents stayed attached to their respective crowns (Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, France, Great Britain, etc.). In the 18th century, Britain was Jamaica’s only authorised trading partner. Guadeloupe, a French possession, could only trade with French intermediaries.

I think it's obvious that given the backlash against globalization in some developed countries today that they are no longer in a position to exercise this kind of exploitative trade that characterised colonialism. (I can elaborate more on this if you want me to, but it seems obvious enough to me.)

Of course, some argue that there are less overt forms of imperialism today, but I think the point is clear that the most obvious form of imperialism (=colonialism) did not have the same trade characteristics as the globalisation of today. So real difficulty with your question is defining imperialism, e.g. contrast

In a recent polemic with Slavoj Žižek, Iranian scholar, Hamid Dabashi reflected a wider intellectual current that neo-globalisation has led us to an impasse in the idea of imperialism. Before the effects of neo-globalisation, imperialism was all so simple. The classic theorisations of imperialism had predominately seen neo-Marxists theoretically expand John Hobson’s thesis that maldistribution of income in Europe was key to understanding colonial expansion beyond Europe. Writers such as Luxemburg, Lenin and Bukharin examined how factors, such as the rise of monopoly capitalism and the internationalisation of capital and labour exploitation, were directly linked to the expansion of Western imperial empire and inter-imperial conflict in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

At the mid-point of the twentieth century, in the midst of the rise of US geo-political hegemony and the onset of decolonisation, dependency theory would advance this idea of a Western-centred imperial world order. Imperialism now not only characterised the territorial expanse of formal Western empires, but also the West’s informal economic and military oppression of newly independent countries. This idea of imperialism centred on a geo-political division between the ‘Centre and Periphery’, where the metropolitan centre, its elites, states, multi-national corporations and geo-political institutions (UN, IMF, World Bank), systematically underdeveloped the periphery (Global South) for profit. This created a neo-imperial order where newly independent Third World countries were perpetually placed on the outer-limits of the global economy, providing raw materials, natural resources and inflows of capital to industrialised countries in the West and unable to develop their own industries and infrastructure free of Western interference. The only solution to this problematic was thus an anti-imperial politics of ‘de-linking’ from the Western controlled global economy.

So if you simply want to call the [neo-]globalisation of today [neo-]imperialism, as some do, then there's no difference indeed. But I think doing this relies on a shell game of unclear concepts.

N.B. dependency theory has apparently given way to "digital colonialism"

This paper proposes a theoretical and conceptual framework explaining how the United States is reinventing colonialism in the Global South through the domination of digital technology. Drawing on South Africa as a case example, it argues that US multinationals exercise imperial control at the architecture level of the digital ecosystem: software, hardware, and network connectivity. This gives rise to five related forms of domination. First, the monopoly power of multinational corporations is used for resource extraction through rent and surveillance, constituting a new form of economic domination. Second, by controlling the digital ecosystem, Big Tech corporations control computer-mediated experiences, giving them direct power over political, economic, and cultural domains of life – a new form of imperial control. Third, the centerpiece of surveillance capitalism, Big Data, violates the sanctity of privacy and concentrates economic power into the hands of US corporations – a system of global surveillance capitalism. Fourth, as a feature of surveillance capitalism, Global North intelligence agencies partner with their own corporations to conduct mass and targeted surveillance in the Global South. This intensifies imperial state surveillance. And fifth, US elites have persuaded most people that society must proceed according to its own ruling class conceptions of the digital world, setting the foundation for tech hegemony.

I for one could not read that without a WTF continuously popping in my head, but as you can see some people see globalization this way. (And that was actually published in a peer reviewed journal.)


Based on that, the main difference seems to be that imperialism is something from the past whereas globalisation is from the present.

I would disagree. The main difference in my opinion is that imperialism is globalization imposed by the imperialist. Globalization is the more general term. It includes military and economic imperialism but also things like the European Union, which is a voluntary and incremental step towards a global union.

I'm not convinced that the day of imperialism is done. There is some belief that China's Belt and Road Initiative and South China Sea actions are part of an imperialist policy. And of course others have accused the United States of the same kind of thing. The Soviet Union was rather openly imperialist during the Cold War, which ended less than thirty years ago. Nazi Germany and Japan were imperialist during World War II. Daesh was a rather unsuccessful imperialist. Its goal was to unite the world under one caliphate.

I would recommend waiting a century or two before claiming imperialism is dead. Perhaps history will mark this as the time that imperialism died. Or perhaps it will rise again.


Imperialism usually refers to the doings of a military empire founded for the benefit of a particular nation or alliance. Globalism usually refers to an enlarging an economic environment or standard for the main benefit of some set of powerful multinational corporations. Wealthy family dynasties are common to both, as are claims that what's good for an empire or a global market is ultimately good for everyone within or near to one.

A difference is that a globalist G might prosper by trading with both sides of nations in conflict. For example, an arms manufacturer might profit by selling guns to Empire X and Empire Y, where X and Y are shooting G's guns at each other.

Prior to modern history various precursors or distant relations of globalists were pirates, mercenaries, scholars, professional guilds, fraternal organizations, and churches.

  • I think this needs fleshed out a lot if it's to compete with the other answers. Also, "Prior to modern history various precursors or distant relations of globalists were pirates, mercenaries, scholars, professional guilds, fraternal organizations, and churches.": isn't that basically the entire pre-industrial "middle class"?
    – pjc50
    Apr 19, 2019 at 10:03
  • @pjc50, Re " isn't that basically the entire pre-industrial "middle class"?": No, not all sailors were pirates, not all soldiers were mercenaries, not all professionals belonged to guilds, etc.. Perhaps adding a qualifier like "some" or "among" would help, but that seemed implicit. Agreed that fleshing out might be an improvement.
    – agc
    Apr 19, 2019 at 21:42

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