Title: Rational Empires: An Institutional Theory of Imperial Expansion
Name: Leo Blanken
Assistant Professor
Department of Defense Analysis
Naval Postgraduate School
Tel: 831‐656‐7786
Year: 2005
Type: Dissertation Fellowship
Summary: I begin the manuscript with a presentation of the puzzle of Great Britain. Why would the most economically advanced democratic state of the nineteenth century utilize the archaic tool of colonialism in an era of industrialization, liberal trade, and plunging transportation costs? The more closely we examine Victorian England, the more puzzling the choice for formal colonies becomes – given its political, economic, and social environment.

I show that democratic powerful states like Great Britain acquire territory only when the local institutions within the target territory are not strong enough to uphold bargains with foreign actors, or when they fear pre‐emption by predatory rival actors. Less democratic states, however, tend toward a dominant strategy to acquire territory regardless of the institutional characteristics of rivals or the target.

I show that state leaders, even when pursuing formal colonization, actually act rationally (even if undesirably from an ethical perspective) in response to the incentives and constraints they face. Their choices are conditioned on their own domestic institutional setting, those of rival actors, and the institutional make‐up of the proposed target territory. To explore this argument, I present game theoretic models of imperial expansion and test them using three rigorous case studies. The core model is a game of incomplete information solved through a Bayes Nash equilibria. These arguments not only gives us a tool to make sense of broad patterns of history, but generates empirical implications which allow for the process‐tracing of the causal mechanisms at work within each case.

The empirical implications of the models are then tested in three case study chapters. The cases– the Scramble for Africa, late Q’ing Dynasty China, and British India – include original archival research and were carefully chosen and executed to control for competing theories. For example, in Africa, rather than a mad scramble for colonies as frequently discussed in the literature, there was a deliberate, reluctant, and utterly peaceful, division of the continent. In China, the same key European actors, at the same time, managed to access markets and resources without recourse to formal colonization. The model predicts these outcomes by focusing on variation in peripheral institutional robustness. Finally, the third empirical chapter is developed as a longitudinal study of Britain’s involvement in the Indian sub‐continent; it shows how the model explains changes in imperial behavior abroad by focusing on changing domestic political incentives in the colonizing state.