The Spitsbergen proto-condominium treaty of 1920: Russian or American roots – or Norwegian ones?

Prof. Roald Berg1

1University Of Stavanger, Bru, Norway

During the nationalist 19th century, “occupation came largely to be understood in terms of sovereignty” (Fitzmaurice 2014). That is the general background for the Norwegian-Swedish diplomatic explore for bringing the terra nullius Spitsbergen under Norwegian sovereignty in the 1870s. Russia vetoed and launched the idea of a “proto-condominium” as a “soft-law” arrangement to one-state rule, an idea that the American lawyer and Secretary of State, Lansing, forged into the Spitsbergen treaty in 1920 to solve this “unique international problem” (Rossi 2017). The paper shows, contrary, that the development from Russian veto to American-dictated combination of political sovereignty and economic community resulted from the close relationship between American and Norwegian international lawyers and the international orientation of Swedish polar researchers and industrialists in the guano age. The genesis of the Spitsbergen treaty must be hunt out in the alliance between the American and Norwegian peace- and arbitration policies and the Swedish industrial internationalism. The Russian 1870-veto was only a disguise for an international scepticism to Norwegian sovereignty at the beginning of European colonialism. The “gentle civilizers” of international law (Koskenniemi 2002) solved the self-contradiction of sovereignty, condominium and resistance against Norwegian polar expansionism by splitting political and territorial sovereignty (Berg 2017).


Roald Berg, professor of history, University of Stavanger, Norway, visiting fellow at Scott Polar Institute, University of Cambridge, 2015. Main publications: Norsk utanrikspolitikk etter 1814 [Norwegian foreign politics], Oslo 2016; co-writer: Into the Ice. The History of Norway and the Polar Regions, Oslo 2006; “Norway, Spitsbergen, and America, 1905-1920”, Diplomacy & Statecraft, 28:1 (2017); “From “Spitsbergen” to “Svalbard”. Norwegianization in Norway and in the “Norwegian Sea”, 1820-1925, Acta Borealia, Vol. 30 (2013), “Cooperation of the Scandinavian countries 1914-1918” (in Russian), in Barents Miscellany 1 (2013), “A Norwegian policy for the north before World War I?”,  Acta Borealia, Vol. 11-12 (1994/95).

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