What is Expansionism?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
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  • Last Modified Date: 03 September 2019
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As an operating philosophy, expansionism has enjoyed a long and colorful life in the history of the world. In its broadest application, expansionism is the concept of expanding the geographic holdings of a given country, either by attempting to annex surrounding territory or by gaining control of lands that are located far away from the mother country. Often, expansionism is attempted through the process of military aggression, with the idea of establishing new political borders both near and far.

There are a number of specialized forms of expansionism. Perhaps one of the best known forms of expansionism is colonialism. Essentially, this is the process of building an empire around the world by seizing control of lands near and far. This sort of empire-building can be exemplified by the race between the United Kingdom, France, and Spain to divide up the New World after its discovery. While several other nations also attempted to expand their holdings by this method, these three were by far the most successful for a time. Empire-building of this nature often involves a sense of divine fiat, with a sense that God is leading the march to acquiring additional lands. Unfortunately, this ideology often led to a complete disregard for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, a black mark that remains to this day.


Expansionism took an even darker form with the concept of Hitler’s Lebensraum. Loosely defined as “living space” the idea behind Lebensraum was that as the number of the pure members of the German race expanded in numbers, it only made sense that they would need more land to live and work. Removing undesirables was a logical progression of this line of thought. Eliminating persons who were not considered pure, both in Germany and in surrounding countries, would leave plenty of room for the pure race to take its rightful place in the world.

Irredentism has also been used as the grounds for expansionism. Essentially, this approach involves attempting to annex territory and unites them with another country on the basis of common ethnic, cultural, or historical backgrounds. The ongoing attempts of China to annex Taiwan are a contemporary example. Closely associated with irredentism is the doctrine of revanchism, which basically involves returning territories that were lost in wartime to the country that originally had control. Reunification also is closely aligned with revanchism and irredentism, with the difference being that the separate territories are absorbed back into the main country from which they may have willingly withdrew from in times past. The re-assimilation of the South after the American Civil War is a good example of reunification.

In the end, expansionism is all about borders and expanding them both geographically and politically as far as possible. While there have been a number of concepts that fall under this wide heading over the centuries, chances are it is just a matter of time before someone comes up with a new concept that would also allow the influence of a country to expand in some manner.


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