Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion

In This Review

Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion
by Leo J. Blanken
University Of Chicago Press, 2012
218 pp. $27.50

What were the economic and geopolitical forces that led great powers to build empires and colonize distant peoples? And why did those empires later give way to movements for independence and self-determination? This provocative book by a young political scientist advances a rationalist theory of imperialism that sees all states as “revenue maximizers.” Blanken argues that closed, autocratic states are more likely to engage in territorial conquests than open, representative regimes, because they are less likely to see the virtues of free trade or uphold international rules and institutions. Spain’s imperial conquest of the New World is an example of a closed regime that sought overt political control of other territories. In contrast, the United States in the late nineteenth century had an open political system, which gave it fewer incentives to hold territory abroad. Blanken is careful to note that even open regimes, such as the nineteenth-century United Kingdom, can resort to territorial acquisition if constructing an informal empire is not possible and the lure of economic gain is sufficient. But missing from his account is a view of the subjugated and colonized peoples and their changing capacities for acquiescence and resistance.