Geopolitics and Decolonisation

This module looks at the engagement and degrees of disengagement with formal and informal empire. It examines enduring hierarchies of power in the international system which are legacies of colonialism and decolonisation and explores issues of superpower and great power policy and interference against local agency in former colonies. The prevalence of formal and informal empires is also assessed.

Topics studied include:

  • How a regional and nationalist struggle in Indo-China took on geopolitical dimensions, and to what extent war in Indo-China was a product of the Cold War;

  • How and why the United States and Soviet Union became involved in the processes of decolonisation;

  • The extent to which strategic minerals were the motivation for international involvement in the Congo crisis;

  • The extent to which there has been a 're-colonisation' of control of African state resources since the 1990s;

  • Decolonisation, informal empire and the politics of oil in the Middle East. Also, current political turbulence in the Middle East and its relationship to colonial transitions will be considered.

Students will:

  • Understand the interaction between changes in the international system and processes of decolonisation and re-colonisation from and by European and extra-European powers across the twentieth century;

  • Be able to critically evaluate structures of power in the international inter-state system from a range of historiographical perspectives, and to demonstrate originality in drawing conclusions about the legacies of processes of decolonisation on inter-state power and institutional structures still in existence;

  • Conceptualise overarching geopolitical state concerns, drawing links between different historical events over time to demonstrate continuities and changes in the aims of individual states and in the objectives of international inter-state alliances, and to identify and evaluate possible reasons for the emergence and decline of such alliances;

  • Understand the legacy of European empires on the world in terms of the institutional structures and hierarchies of power in the international system, and on post-colonial states in terms of their internal economic and political structures, and to assess the role of these structures on contemporary strategic challenges.


One formative (unassessed) 2000-word essay; one summative (assessed) 5000-word essay; class participation (10% of final grade).

General Reading includes:

• John Coates, Suppressing Insurgency: An analysis of the Malayan Emergency (1948-54)

• Jacques Dalloz, The War in Indo-China (1945-54)

• R.F.Holland,  "The Imperial Factor in British Strategies from Attlee to Macmillan", Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol 12 (1984), pp.165-186

• Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

• W.R. Louis, Imperialism at Bay: The United States and the Decolonisation of the British Empire, 1941-45

• Sue Onslow, “Battlelines for Suez? The Abadan Crisis of 1950-1951”, Contemporary British History

• R.Ovendale, "Britain, the United States and the Cold War in South-East Asia, 1949-1950", International Affairs, 58, 1982

• W.W.Schneidman, Engaging Africa: Washington and the fall of Portugal’s Colonial Empire

• E. Selesky, The Aftermath of Defeat. Societies, Armed Forces, and the Challenge of Recovery