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Imperialism is the political theory of the acquisition and maintenance of empires. The term is used to describe the policy of a country in maintaining colonies and dominance over distant lands, regardless of whether the country calls itself an empire.

Imperialists normally hold the belief that the acquisition and maintenance of empires is a positive good, combined with an assumption of cultural or other such superiority inherent to the imperial power. Subjects of imperial and post-imperial governments and those sympathetic to them have often considered imperialism to be an exploitive evil. This view has even been held by the subjects or citizens of the state which holds an imperial sway over other nations or peoples.

Origins of the word "Imperialism"

The term imperialism was a new word in the mid-19th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it was first recorded in 1858, to describe Pax Britannica. At this time, imperialism was regarded as a new phenomenon deserving of a new word to describe it. However its intellectual roots can certainly be traced as far back as Dante, who in his Monarchia depicted a world with a single political focus and governed by rationalism. Dante was very influential on John Dee, who coined the term British Empire in the late sixteenth century. Although a hermeticist deeply involved in magic, Dee was instrumental in creating the intellectual and scientific environment whereby English seafarers such as Humphrey Gilbert, Martin Frobisher and Walter Raleigh could set the groundwork for a maritime empire.

According to the OED, in 19th Century England, imperialism, was generally used only to describe English policies. However, soon after the invention of the term, imperialism was used in reference to policies of the Roman Empire. In the 20th century, the term has been used to describe the policies of both the Soviet Union and the United States although analytically these differed greatly from each other and from 19th-century imperialism. Furthermore, the term has been expanded to apply, in general, to any historical instance of the aggrandizement of a greater power at the expense of a lesser power.

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See also: colonialism, Cultural imperialism, Colonization of Africa, Imperialism in Asia, superpowers, client states, Pax Americana, New Imperialism, Media Imperialism, The White Man's Burden