Skip to main content

Rational Empires

Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion

Rational Empires

Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion

The nineteenth century marked the high point of imperialism, when tsarist Russia expanded to the Pacific and the sun was said never to set on the British Empire. Imperialism remains a perennial issue in international relations today, and nowhere is this more evident than in the intensifying competition for global resources.          

Leo J. Blanken explains imperialism through an analysis of the institutions of both the expanding state and its targets of conquest. While democratic states favoring free trade generally resort to imperialism only to preempt aggressive rivals—or when they have reason to believe another state’s political institutions will not hold up when making bargains—authoritarian states tend toward imperialism because they don’t stand to benefit from free trade. The result is three distinct strategies toward imperialism: actors fighting over territory, actors peaceably dividing territory among themselves, and actors refraining from seizing territory altogether. Blanken examines these dynamics through three case studies: the scramble for Africa, the unequal treaties imposed on Qing Dynasty China, and the evolution of Britain’s imperial policy in India. By separating out the different types of imperialism, Blanken provides insight into its sources, as well as the potential implications of increased competition in the current international arena.

218 pages | 3 halftones, 1 line drawing, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Geography: Social and Political Geography

Political Science: Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations

Sociology: General Sociology


“Innovative, interesting, and important. Leo J. Blanken speaks to one of the oldest issues in international relations—the source of imperial behavior—and does so with a novel and well-written argument that is embedded in a very popular emerging school of research. Rational Empires will be seen as a model of how to employ some of the latest developments in the rational choice literature to international politics.”

David M. Edelstein, Georgetown University

“In Rational Empires, Leo J. Blanken develops an intriguing and innovative theoretical framework that sets his work apart from both the realist and constructivist accounts of imperialism. Through a series of well-supported and interesting applications of this framework, Blanken makes a substantial contribution toward rational modeling of theories of imperialism that will appeal to those interested in international history and relations, institutions, and rational choice.”

Colin Dueck, George Mason University

“In this fascinating and accessible book, Leo J. Blanken blends game theory and historical analysis with economic, legal, and conflict theories to explain long-recognized puzzles in the history of imperialism. Rational Empires is both a good read and a major analytical work that will be of interest to those who study imperialism, property rights, institutions, and conflict.”

Scott Sigmund Gartner, Pennsylvania State University

"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.’ Leo J. 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."

G. John Ikenberry | Foreign Affairs

“Leo J. Blanken applies strategic logic to the broadest historical sweeps of formal imperialism, arguing that institutional features of the ‘target region’ and of the relevant imperial powers interact to determine the target region’s fate. . . . Recommended.”


“Like many compelling detective stories, Rational Empires begins with an interesting empirical puzzle: why, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, did Great Britain, a liberal democratic state, pursue empire with increasing vigor counter to prevailing social, political, and economic theories? . . . [The book] is an ingenious attempt to explain the anomaly and place it and other patterns of imperialist activity into a rigorous theoretical context.”

Global Discourse

Table of Contents


1. The Enduring Puzzles of Formal Imperialism

2. An Institutional Theory of Formal Imperialism

3. The Curiously Courteous Scramble: The Case of Tropical Africa

4. Failing to Carve the Dragon: The Case of Qing Dynasty China

5. From Plunder to Public Goods: The Case of British India

6. Conclusions: The Past and Future of Rational Empires

Appendix: An Institutional Model of Imperialism


Works Cited


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press