Informal empire

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The term "Informal empire" describes the spheres of influence which a polity may develop that translate into a degree of influence over a region or country, which is not a formal colony, protectorate, tributary or vassal state of empire, as a result of its commercial, strategic or military interests.

In a 2010 article, Gregory Barton and Brett Bennett defined informal empire as:

A willing and successful attempt by commercial and political elites to control a foreign region, resource, or people. The means of control included the enforcement of extraterritorial privileges and the threat of economic and political sanctions, often coupled with the attempt to keep other would-be imperial powers at bay. For the term "informal empire" to be applicable, we argue, historians have to show that one nation's elite or government exerted extraterritorial legal control, de facto economic domination, and was able to strongly influence policies in a foreign country critical to the more powerful country's interests.

An informal empire may assume a primarily economic guise. Strategic considerations or other concerns may bring about the creation of an imperial influence over a region not formally a component of empire.


The city-state of Athens exerted control over the Delian league through an informal empire in the 5th century BCE.[1] According to historian Jeremy Black, the role of chartered companies such as the Muscovy Company, the Levant Company, the East India Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, who operated beyond official state channels, were a forerunner to the concept of "informal empire".[2]

United Kingdom[edit]

The term is most commonly associated with the British Empire, where it is used to describe the extensive reach of British interests into regions and nations which were not formal parts of the Empire, in that they were not colonies and were not directly administered by the British government.[3] Among the most notable elements of the British informal empire was the trade relationship it maintained with China, along with British commercial interests and investments in South America, including Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.[4]

The informal empire consisted primarily of three elements: extraterritoriality, a trade systems which heavily favored the Western powers, and interventionist tools such as military force and the informal power exerted by diplomats. In China, the most significant source of informal control was the Shanghai Municipal Council, which although theoretically under lease from the Chinese government, was effectively unaccountable to them and saw most positions filled by Britons backed by British diplomatic influence. Several unequal treaties were signed between China and Western powers, and concessions were established in Chinese port cities, such as the Shanghai International Settlement. Imperial financial presence was established through war indemnities in the aftermath of various Sino-foreign wars, legally immune foreign banks with government links and near-oligopoly in China, seizure of Chinese government revenues, loan agreements stipulating cession of profits, government revenues, mining rights, foreign engineering or administrative control, and above-market-price supply contracts. This system broke down after the fragmentation of China by the era of the Warlords in 1916 and the First World War, causing most Western powers (with the notable exception of Japan which attempted to expand direct control) to be unable to effectively enforce their privileges in Mainland China.[5] Challenges to British informal control in China from other European powers, as well as the United States, led to a shift from more informal to more formal control at the turn of the century, with the establishment of more concessions and the assumption of greater control of the Chinese economy. These were returned during the Second World War so that China would continue resisting Japan.[6] Black claimed that the British military intervention in the Russian Civil War on behalf of the White Russians was motivated in part by a desire to establish an informal empire of political influence and economic ties in Southern Russia, to deny Germany access to these assets and block their passage to British colonies in Asia.[7]

Informal empire, like many imperial relationships, is difficult to classify and reduce to a prescriptive definition. In the instance of the British informal empire, the character of the relationship varied widely. The Chinese intensely opposed any foreign control over China or its economy, and both the First and Second Opium Wars were fought between China and several Western powers, resulting in Chinese defeat and the increase of both formal and informal foreign power.[8] South American governments were often willing partners in the extension of British commercial influence, but military action was sometimes taken against those who tried to apply protectionist policies (see for example, the Anglo-French blockade of the River Plate). Informal empire is an important concept required to adequately explain the reach and influence of empire, and in the case of the British Empire, is vital to any holistic account of the British imperial experience and intrinsic to describing the interests and purposes of the Empire as a whole. Informal empire, far from being distinctive and separate from formal empire, is often bound up with formal imperial interests. For example, the British informal empire in China was a product of Company rule in India, as the East India Company used its Indian territories to grow opium, which was then shipped to Chinese ports. By 1850, the Chinese opium trade accounted for up to 20% of the revenue of the entire British Empire, serving as the most profitable single commodity trade of the 19th century.[9] As Timothy Brook and Bob Wakabayashi write of opium trade, “The British Empire could not survive were it deprived of its most important source of capital, the substance that could turn any other commodity into silver.”[10]

In the economic sphere, the British informal empire was driven by the free trade economic system of the Empire. In the so-called "Imperialism of Free Trade" thesis, as articulated by historians Ronald Robinson and John "Jack" Gallagher, the British Empire expanded as much by the growth of informal empire as it did by acquiring formal dominion over colonies.[11] Furthermore, British investment in empire was to be found not only in the formal Empire, but also in the informal empire – and, by Robinson and Gallagher's account, was indeed predominantly located in the informal empire. It is estimated that between 1815 and 1880, £1,187,000,000 in credit had accumulated abroad, but no more than one-sixth was placed in the formal empire. Even by 1913, less than half of the £3,975,000,000 of foreign investment lay inside the formal Empire.[12] British historian David Reynolds has claimed that during the process of decolonisation, it was hoped that as an alternative to the declining formal empire, informal influence, marked by economic ties and defense treaties would hold sway over the former colonies. Reynolds suggested that the establishment of the Commonwealth was an attempt to maintain some form of indirect influence over the newly independent countries.[13]

United States[edit]

U.S. foreign policy from the late 19th century onward, under Presidents such as Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and New Deal leaders, has been described as "informal empire".[14] 20th century U.S. policy of establishing international influence through friendly regimes, military bases and interventions, and economic pressure, has drawn comparisons with the informal empires of European colonial powers. The fundamental elements involved a clientelistic relationship with the elite, sometimes established forcibly, effective veto power over issues pertaining to the Great Power's interests, and the use of military threats, regime change, or multilateral pressure to accomplish diplomatic aims. The policy is intended to create an international economic order that benefits the Great Power by creating markets for export and investment, improving the profitability of their capitalists. This commitment to open economy is selective and applied only when it benefits their producers. Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran and Chile are examples of this policy being implemented.[15]

The policy was summed up by Secretary Bryan as having “opened the doors of all the weaker countries to an invasion of American capital and American enterprise.”[16] Under informal empire, the U.S. relationship with countries which supplied them raw materials became highly imbalanced, with much of their wealth being repatriated to the U.S. This also disproportionately benefited the (often authoritarian) pro-American rulers of these countries at the expense of local development.[17] The U.S. chose to switch from formal to informal imperialism after the Second World War not because of lack of desire among Americans for colonialism (there was strong public support for seizing colonies from the vanquished Japan, as well as a continued belief in colonies' incapability to govern themselves) but rather because of a changed international landscape. Since most of the world was already organised into colonies, US policymakers chose to utilise preexisting colonial empire networks instead of establishing new colonies. The US also had to adapt themselves to rising anti-colonial nationalist movements so as to acquire allies against the Soviet Union.[18]


French interventions in Mexico (1838, 1861) and elsewhere in Latin America such as Argentina and Uruguay have also been described as "informal empire".[19] France did not intervene with the intent to seize territory, instead, the imperial relationship was governed by treaty. Intervention was based on significant segments of the local population who looked to French ideals and French power as a means of self-advancement.[20] The decolonisation of Africa led to the conversion of many former colonies into client states under a French informal empire known as Françafrique. Chief of Staff for African Affairs Jacques Foccart was the figure instrumental in creating collaborative networks between the French government and the new African elites. The purpose of the network was to aid capital accumulation for France.[21]


Japanese diplomacy and military intervention in China from 1895 to the outbreak of the Second World War has also been described as an informal empire. Japan was forced into concealing their territorial ambitions under informal terms as they lacked the strength to overcome Western objections to Japanese territorial gains. The Japanese advanced their own special privileges in China through promoting Western interests alongside their own. Japan profited immensely from the informal empire in China and Japan's first multinational manufacturing firms were initiated in China rather than Japan's formal colonies due to China's vast internal market and raw material supply. Chinese popular pressure to drive out Japanese imperial institutions led to the Japanese attempting to switch from informal to formal imperialism to protect their profits, beginning the Second World War in Asia.[22]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Jeremy Black (2015). The British Empire: A History and a Debate. Ashgate Publishing. p. 11. ISBN 1472459660.
  2. ^ Jeremy Black (2015). The British Empire: A History and a Debate. Ashgate Publishing. p. 46. ISBN 1472459660.
  3. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica. "British Empire". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Hong Kong island became British in 1841, and an 'informal empire' operated in China by way of British treaty ports and the great trading city of Shanghai.
  4. ^ Porter, Andrew, ed. (1999). The Oxford History of the British Empire: The nineteenth century. Oxford University Press. pp. 146–155. ISBN 9780198205654.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Porter, Andrew (1999). THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE VOLUME III The Nineteenth Century. Oxford University Press. pp. 148–153, 165–168. ISBN 978-0-19-924678-6.
  6. ^ Encyclopedia of Chinese-American Relations (McFarland, 2015) edited by Yuwu Song, p.288-289
  7. ^ Jeremy Black (2015). The British Empire: A History and a Debate. Ashgate Publishing. pp. 217–218. ISBN 1472459660.
  8. ^ Lovell, Julia (November 10, 2015). The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. ISBN 9781468313239.
  9. ^ Frederic Wakeman Jr.; John K. Fairbank (1978). The Canton Trade in the Opium War," in The Cambridge History of China, vol. 10, Late Ch'ing, 1800–1911. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 172.
  10. ^ Timothy Brook; Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (2000). Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839–1952. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 6.
  11. ^ John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, "The Imperialism of Free Trade", The Economic History Review, Second series, Vol. VI, no. 1 (1953) An online version of this seminal article is available at: "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 21, 2008. Retrieved December 25, 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. ^ A.. H. Imlah, 'British Balance of Payments and Exports of Capital, 1816-1913', Econ. Hist. Rev. 2nd ser. V (1952), pp. 237, 239; Hancock, op. cit. p. 27.
  13. ^ "Was British Decolonization after 1945 a Voluntary Process?". E-International Relations. Retrieved September 18, 2016.
  14. ^ Williams, William Appleman (2009). "1, 3". The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393079791. And for Wilson, as for his predecessors and successors, the Open Door Policy was America’s version of the liberal policy of informal empire or free-trade imperialism.
  15. ^ Atul Kohli (2020). Imperialism and the Developing World: How Britain and the United States Shaped the Global Periphery. Oxford University Press. pp. 6–12. ISBN 0190069627.
  16. ^ Williams, William Appleman (2009). "2". The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393079791. leader who concluded that his society needed overseas markets and was determined to find them. He fully intended, however, to do so in such a way that order and stability would be assured, a protestant peace secured and preserved, and the backward nations protected from rapacious foreigners while being led along the path of progress by the United States. Confident that Wilson was a man with the same goals, Bryan could without any reservations praise the President, in May 1914, as one who had “opened the doors of all the weaker countries to an invasion of American capital and American enterprise.” Candidly asserting America’s “paramount influence in the Western Hemisphere,” Bryan’s objective was to “make absolutely sure our domination of the situation.”
  17. ^ Williams, William Appleman (2009). "5". The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393079791. major consequence of New Deal trade philosophy was the way it sustained, and even deepened, the pattern of free trade imperialism or informal empire that had evolved out of British economic policy in the nineteenth century. America’s relationship with the chief suppliers of raw materials became economically and politically ever more imbalanced in its own favor.
  18. ^ Go, Julian (2011). Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present. Cambridge University Press. pp. 133–154. ISBN 1139503391.
  19. ^ Edward Shawcross (2018). France, Mexico and Informal Empire in Latin America, 1820-1867: Equilibrium in the New World. Springer. pp. 15, 55–56. ISBN 3319704648.
  20. ^ Edward Shawcross (2018). France, Mexico and Informal Empire in Latin America, 1820-1867: Equilibrium in the New World. Springer. pp. 248–250. ISBN 3319704648.
  21. ^ Andrea Behrends; Stephen Reyna; Günther Schle (2011). Crude Domination: An Anthropology of Oil. Berghahn Books. p. 141. ISBN 0857452568.
  22. ^ Peter Duus; Ramon H. Myers; Mark R. Peattie (2014). The Japanese Informal Empire in China, 1895-1937. Princeton University Press. pp. xi–xxix. ISBN 1400847931.