Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Francine McKenzie


During the first half of the twentieth century, state officials, international lawyers and polar experts struggled to apply an underdeveloped and unclear international legal discourse on territorial acquisition and the establishment of state sovereignty to the harsh environment and unique conditions of the Arctic and Antarctic. Drawing upon fresh archival research undertaken in several countries, as well as a thorough interrogation and synthesis of existing historical and legal scholarship, this dissertation explores the knowledge production that occurred on terrestrial polar claims, thus reconstructing the transnational web of ideas, adaptations, strategies and best practices developed to address the confusion and uncertainty that infused the anomalous legal space of the polar regions. By applying a global and bi-polar framework, this study offers a novel conceptual history of polar sovereignty and its constituent parts, including the sector principle, the doctrines of contiguity, constructive occupation and effective occupation, and other arguments used to justify territorial claims. Identifying the specific countries and individual lawyers, advisers and experts that shaped the legal and political context of the Arctic and Antarctic, this dissertation scrutinizes the complex interplay between the law, power, polar diplomacy and state practice.

An exploration of state sovereignty strategies, legal policies, and the historical sociology of international law underlines the central contention of this dissertation: national experiences with polar sovereignty have to be situated in a broader global and bi-polar context. It is only through such a bi-polar framework, which reconstructs the nexus of connections, intersections and networks that enmeshed the polar regions, that this international legal history can be understood without losing the larger currents of practice and thought in the detail of national histories.

By reconstructing the bi-polar legal landscape, this study demonstrates that sustained legal uncertainty represents the most important and prevalent force shaping the international legal history of the polar regions. Within this legal uncertainty, international law and legal argumentation had a significant impact on state behaviour. The official appraisals of state legal advisers and the opinions of private international lawyers often guided state decision-making, decided internal debates, and created polar policy.

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