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It seems that until around the 20th century, a relatively large portion of rulers saw it as their goal to acquire more land. What was the main rationale behind this?

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Can you include a particular example you have in mind? This seems really open, though it is fascinating. –  Seth Rogers Oct 12 '11 at 20:16
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@SethRogersΨ I thought about coming with specific examples, but that will quickly create a discussion regarding the circumstances of that particular war. Because of this I ended up leaving it completely open. I believe that a good answer should include some examples where the rationale is widely agreed upon. –  David Oct 12 '11 at 20:21
    
I have removed the more subjective second question, because I guess this is the reason for the down-vote. –  David Oct 12 '11 at 21:20
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I don't have time to research this properly, but I think there's a good counterexample in Imperial Roman history: after about Hadrian, the empire largely gave up expansion, and fought hard to maintain its existing lands. For instance, lands conquered in Mesopotamia would be returned in peace treaties relatively soon afterwards. In fact, a lot of diplomatic work went into making sure that Armenia stayed independent as a buffer state between Rome and Persia; the goal being peace and prosperity, not conquest. –  Gaurav Oct 12 '11 at 23:44
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This seems more like a question of psychology/human behaviour than anything. The human race always produces people who want power at all costs... isn't that enough? –  Noldorin Oct 13 '11 at 0:08
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closed as not constructive by Noldorin, Sardathrion, Tea Drinker, Dan the Man, Dori Oct 13 '11 at 20:37

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3 Answers

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There are many factors:

  • Economic motives: Many people saw colonies as markets for their finished products, and suppliers for their raw goods. Colonies provided raw materials that often could not be grown or found in the parent country. For example, England's colony in India. India was a good place to grow tea and opium, things that the British could not grow at home.
  • Strategic reasons: England controlled the Suez canal in Africa to secure the fastest water route to India. This was a highly coveted position, since India was rich with resources.
  • "White man's burden": Many Europeans felt superior to the other races around the world. As such, they made it a goal to assimilate peoples around the world, to a more European lifestyle. Again, I will use England as an example: In India, England built a sewage system, hospitals, schools, etc. In their minds, they were drastically improving life for Indians. However, the Indians did not feel the same way. The schools taught things that were meaningful to the British, but not to Indians. The British also abolished many traditions, one of which was burning a widow alive on her husband's funeral pyre. The Indian people were outraged, as this had been a part of life for many, many years.

Keep in mind that this is New Imperialism, which came after Old Imperialism. Old Imperialistic motives can be summed up quickly:

  • Gold: They wanted loot. Essentially, pure greed.
  • Glory: Conquistadors and explorers wanted to be famous. Again, very simple.
  • God: Many European missionaries felt that it was their duty to convert the entire world to Roman Catholicism. So, they went to South America (primarily) and brought Christianity to the natives.
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are you sure that Old Imperialism was that simple? –  Louis Rhys Apr 28 '13 at 4:05
    
“We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure.” Hernan Cortez –  Jeroen K Oct 20 '13 at 19:43
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Note: this is an opinion question (especially the second part) and probably off-topic here. I'll try to answer it nevertheless. I'm not sure there is a single rationale behind this.

  • One reason is psychology. Humans build hierarchies instinctively and try to climb up. A country ruler is no exception, he will also instinctively try to amass more power and make his country stronger than the others - even if this behavior violates common sense. Good rulers obviously have a common sense that is stronger than instinct.
  • It wasn't always about territory. In the feudal wars the occupant often didn't expect to keep the territory, he simply got everything valuable out of the country and left it. The colonization of South America followed a similar principle.
  • With the rise of nationalism came a competition between nations (same hierarchy but with people identifying themselves with their countries). This should be the reason why Britain amassed huge territories in Africa that were of very little value to it. Russia did the same thing in Asia, other countries behaved similarly.

One can easily find more rationales. In the end, the psychological factors causing countries to compete didn't go away, they are still there. The important difference now might be the globalization: with the economies of all countries interconnected a war between first world countries would be devastating for all parties involved and cannot be rationalized no matter how hard one tries. So the competition shifted into other areas like economy.

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I think there's a selection bias at play. A ruler that did not care about acquiring more land would typically end up avoiding conflict with the neighbors, and would tend to not be noticed historically. Just because the historically notable rulers were a certain way does not mean that the average rulers were the same way.

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What an excellent point! I love it when my question is based on a wrong assumption. That is when I learn the most. –  David Oct 12 '11 at 20:37
    
@David thanks! Statistically, very many more rulers were not historically notable and were probably "boring" compared to the notable ones. That said, there are some reasons why some rulers were expansionist, I'll add those points when I get a chance. –  Wedge Oct 12 '11 at 21:28
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