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The 1853 negotiations between Russian envoy, Prince Menshikov, and the Turkish Sultan about the protection of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire involved a series of ultimata. On 31 May, Russia threatened that the vassal states of Moldavia and Wallachia would be occupied if Menshikov's note was not accepted within seven days. This Punch cartoon satirises rejection of the ultimatum. Unceremonious Treatment of the Russian Ultimatum.jpg
The 1853 negotiations between Russian envoy, Prince Menshikov, and the Turkish Sultan about the protection of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire involved a series of ultimata. On 31 May, Russia threatened that the vassal states of Moldavia and Wallachia would be occupied if Menshikov's note was not accepted within seven days. This Punch cartoon satirises rejection of the ultimatum.

An ultimatum ( /ˌʌltɪˈmtəm/ ; Latin for 'the last one') is a demand whose fulfillment is requested in a specified period of time and which is backed up by a threat to be followed through in case of noncompliance (open loop). An ultimatum is generally the final demand in a series of requests. As such, the time allotted is usually short, and the request is understood not to be open to further negotiation. The threat which backs up the ultimatum can vary depending on the demand in question and on the other circumstances.[ citation needed ]


The word is used in diplomacy to signify the final terms submitted by one of the parties in negotiation for settlement of any subject of disagreement. It is accompanied by an intimation as to how refusal will be regarded. English diplomacy has devised the adroit reservation that refusal will be regarded as an "unfriendly act", a phrase which serves as a warning that the consequences of the rupture of negotiations will be considered from the point of view of forcing a settlement. This opens up a variety of possibilities, such as good offices, mediation, the appointment of a commission of inquiry, arbitration, reprisals, pacific blockade and war. [lower-alpha 1]


Unlike the circumstances of an ultimatum, the scenario of deterrence is not bound by specific constraints of time, place, or action, and though a threat may be present, there is no formal guarantee of it being acted out. The scenario of nuclear deterrence (particularly the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War) is a good example of this concept: while both nations maintained a sizeable stockpile of nuclear weapons aimed at each other, the intent was to prevent open conflict (closed loop), and that no formal condition for initiating conflict was ever established, except in retaliation for the other side initiating an attack. In an ultimatum situation, such as during the Cuban Missile Crisis, either nation would threaten the use of nuclear weapons if certain demands/constraints were not met independent of that retaliatory capability that would have a fixed point of no return—compliance or warfare.

Requirement for military action

An ultimatum may also serve to provide legitimacy for military action.

International law

The Hague Convention relevant to the Opening of Hostilities of 18 October 1907, provides as follows:

"Considering that it is important, in order to ensure the maintenances of pacific relations, that hostilities should not commence without previous warning," it is agreed by the Contracting Powers to "recognize that hostilities between them must not commence without a previous and explicit warning in the form of either a declaration of war, giving reasons, or an ultimatum with a conditional declaration of war."

As reasons for a declaration of war are necessarily in the nature of an ultimatum, the ultimatum may now be regarded as an indispensable formality precedent to the outbreak of hostilities.

Another Hague convention of the same date respecting the limitation of the employment of force for the recovery of contract debts provides as follows:

"Being desirous of preventing between nations armed conflicts originating in a pecuniary dispute respecting contract debts claimed from the government of one country by the government of another country as due to its subjects or citizens," the Contracting Powers agree "not to have recourse to armed force for the recovery of contract debts claimed from the government of one country by the government of another country as being due to its subjects or citizens."

This undertaking, however, is not applicable when the debtor state refuses or neglects to reply to an offer of arbitration or, "after accepting the offer, renders the settlement of the compromis impossible, or, after the arbitration, fails to comply with the award."

Under this convention, in the cases to which it relates, the alternative of the ultimatum is ipso facto arbitration, and it is only when the conditions of the convention have been set at naught that other measures may be employed. [2]

Subsequent to the United Nations Charter

The United Nations Charter [3] prohibits not only the use of force but also the threat of such use of force, but there is discussion on whether this prohibition applies only to (militarily) credible threats, whether (or when) the threat of the use of force in self-defence is permitted, and what actions (not necessarily accompanied by a verbal threat) can be considered a threat. [4] The International Court of Justice has provided guidance on the legality of the use of threats: generally, if the use of force would be lawful, the threat of such use of force is also legal, and if the actual use of force is later found lawful, then the prior threat is also deemed lawful. [4]

Advantages and disadvantages

The actor that presents the other side with an ultimatum should be prepared to make good on the threat, for instance, initiate military action, if the other side does not comply with its demands. [5] There are dangers if the threatened actor decides not to comply. On the one hand, if the actor presenting the ultimatum is not willing to go through with the threatened action, the other actor may "call their bluff" presenting a choice between a humiliating climb-down and an unwanted result (such as war). On the other hand, the opponent may take the ultimatum seriously and take pre-emptive action. [6] The ultimatum may encourage the opponent to remain firm so as not to be seen as weak. [6]

One danger here is that the opponent may profess to accept the ultimatum, possibly with conditions, thus weakening the credibility of the issuer of the ultimatum. [6]

Another danger is that the issuer may keep negotiating with the opponent when the requested period of time ends, further weakening the issuer's position. [7]

Theory and strategy behind coercive diplomacy

Tactics and requirements for success

See also


  1. To these may be added a new unofficial method devised by the Turks in connexion with the Austro-Turkish difficulty over the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, viz. the boycotting of the goods and ships of the natives of the state against which the grievance exists. This is a method open to weaker as against more powerful states, which can have serious coercive and even complicated consequences under the influence of democratic institutions.

Related Research Articles

Coercion is compelling a party to act in an involuntary manner by use of threats, including threats of force. It involves a set of forceful actions which violate the free will of an individual in order to induce a desired response. These actions may include extortion, blackmail, or even torture and sexual assault. For example, a bully may demand lunch money from a student where refusal results in the student getting beaten.

Iraq disarmament crisis Diplomatic crisis over Iraqs alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction in the early 2000s

The Iraq disarmament crisis was claimed as one of primary issues that led to the multinational invasion of Iraq on 20 March 2003. Since the 1980s, Iraq was widely assumed to have been producing and extensively running the programs of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Iraq made extensive use of chemical weapons during the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s, including against its own Kurdish population. France and the Soviet Union assisted Iraq in the development of its nuclear program, but its primary facility was destroyed by Israel in 1981 in a surprise air strike.

Law of war International regulations of warfare

The law of war is the component of international law that regulates the conditions for initiating war and the conduct of warring parties. Laws of war define sovereignty and nationhood, states and territories, occupation, and other critical terms of law.

In politics, hard power is the use of military and economic means to influence the behavior or interests of other political bodies. This form of political power is often aggressive (coercion), and is most immediately effective when imposed by one political body upon another of lesser military and/or economic power. Hard power contrasts with soft power, which comes from diplomacy, culture and history.

War Powers Resolution 1973 U.S. federal law (50 U.S.C. 1541-48)

The War Powers Resolution is a federal law intended to check the U.S. president's power to commit the United States to an armed conflict without the consent of the U.S. Congress. The resolution was adopted in the form of a United States congressional joint resolution. It provides that the president can send the U.S. Armed Forces into action abroad only by declaration of war by Congress, "statutory authorization", or in case of "a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces".

Brinkmanship Political and military tactic

Brinkmanship is the practice of trying to achieve an advantageous outcome by pushing dangerous events to the brink of active conflict. The maneuver of pushing a situation with the opponent to the brink succeeds by forcing the opponent to back down and make concessions rather than risk engaging in a conflict that would no longer be beneficial to either side. That might be achieved through diplomatic maneuvers, by creating the impression that one is willing to use extreme methods rather than concede. The tactic occurs in international politics, foreign policy, labor relations, contemporary military strategy, terrorism, and high-stakes litigation.

Declaration of war Formal act by which one state announces war against another

A declaration of war is a formal act by which one state announces existing or impending war activity against another. The declaration is a performative speech act by an authorized party of a national government, in order to create a state of war between two or more states.

Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 Series of international treaties helping establish international law

The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 are a series of international treaties and declarations negotiated at two international peace conferences at The Hague in the Netherlands. Along with the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions were among the first formal statements of the laws of war and war crimes in the body of secular international law. A third conference was planned for 1914 and later rescheduled for 1915, but it did not take place because of the start of World War I.

Deterrence theory Military strategy during the Cold War with regard to the use of nuclear weapons

Deterrence theory refers to the scholarship and practice of how threats or limited force by one party can convince another party to refrain from initiating some other course of action. The topic gained increased prominence as a military strategy during the Cold War with regard to the use of nuclear weapons and is related to but distinct from the concept of mutual assured destruction, which models the preventative nature of full-scale nuclear attack that would devastate both parties in a nuclear war. The central problem of deterrence revolves around how to credibly threaten military action or nuclear punishment on the adversary despite its costs to the deterrer.

Continental Association 1774 American trade boycott with England

The Continental Association, also known as the Articles of Association or simply the Association, was an agreement among the American colonies adopted by the First Continental Congress on October 20, 1774. It called for a trade boycott against British merchants by the colonies. Congress hoped that placing economic sanctions on British imports and exports would pressure Parliament into addressing the colonies' grievances, in particular, by repealing what were referred to as the Intolerable Acts.

Conflict escalation is the process by which conflicts grow in severity or scale over time. That may refer to conflicts between individuals or groups in interpersonal relationships, or it may refer to the escalation of hostilities in a political or military context. In systems theory, the process of conflict escalation is modeled by positive feedback.

A pacific blockade is a blockade exercised by a great power for the purpose of bringing pressure to bear on a weaker state without actual war. It can be employed only as a measure of coercion by maritime powers able to bring into action such vastly superior forces to those the resisting state can dispose of that resistance is out of the question. The term was created by Laurent-Basile Hautefeuille, a French writer on international maritime law.

Warning shot Intentionally harmless shot used as a warning

In military and police contexts, a warning shot is an intentionally harmless artillery shot or gunshot with intent to enact direct compliance and order to a hostile perpetrator or enemy forces. It is recognized as signalling intended confrontations on land, sea, and air.

British Parliamentary approval for the invasion of Iraq was given by the elected members of the British House of Commons to Tony Blair's government on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in a series of two votes, on 18 March 2003.

Stephen M. Schwebel American judge

Stephen Myron Schwebel, is an American jurist and international judge, counsel and arbitrator. He previously served as Judge of the World Bank Administrative Tribunal (2010-2017), as a member of the U.S. National Group at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, as President of the International Monetary Fund Administrative Tribunal (1993–2010), as President of the International Court of Justice (1997–2000), as Vice President of the International Court of Justice (1994–1997), and as Judge of the International Court of Justice (1981–2000). Prior to his tenure on the ICJ, Judge Schwebel served as Deputy Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State (1974–1981) and as Assistant Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State (1961–1967). He also served as a professor of law at Harvard Law School (1959–1961) and Johns Hopkins University (1967–1981). Judge Schwebel is noted for his expansive opinions in momentous cases such as Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua and Oil Platforms .

Air warfare must comply with laws and customs of war, including international humanitarian law by protecting the victims of the conflict and refraining from attacks on protected persons.

Operation Giant Lance was an undercover military operation by the United States in which the primary objective was to apply military pressure towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Initiated on October 27, 1969, President Richard Nixon authorized a squadron of 18 B-52 bombers to patrol the Arctic polar ice caps and escalate the nuclear threat poised. The goal was to coerce both the Soviet Union and North Vietnam to agree on favourable terms with the US, and conclusively end the Vietnam War. The operation's effectiveness was also largely built on Nixon's consistent madman theory diplomacy, in order to influence Moscow's decision even more. The operation was kept top secret from both the general public and higher authorities within the Strategic Air Command, intended to only be noticed by Russian intelligence. The operation lasted one month before being called off.

Compellence is a form of coercion that attempts to get an actor to change its behavior through threats to use force or the actual use of limited force. Compellence can be more clearly described as "a political-diplomatic strategy that aims to influence an adversary's will or incentive structure. It is a strategy that combines threats of force, and, if necessary, the limited and selective use of force in discrete and controlled increments, in a bargaining strategy that includes positive inducements. The aim is to induce an adversary to comply with one's demands, or to negotiate the most favorable compromise possible, while simultaneously managing the crisis to prevent unwanted military escalation."

In international relations, credibility is the perceived likelihood that a leader or a state follows through on threats and promises that have been made. Credibility is a key component of coercion, as well as the functioning of military alliances. Credibility is related to concepts such as reputation and resolve. Reputation for resolve may be a key component of credibility, but credibility is also highly context-dependent.

In international relations, coercion refers to the imposition of costs by a state on other states and non-state actors to prevent them from taking an action (deterrence) or to compel them to take an action (compellence). Coercion frequently takes the form of threats or the use of limited military force. It is commonly seen as analytically distinct from persuasion, brute force, or full-on war.


  1. James L. Richardson (1994), "The Crimean War Crisis, 1853-1854", Crisis Diplomacy, Cambridge University Press, pp. 69–105, ISBN   9780521459877
  2. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ultimatum"  . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  3. Article 2(4)
  4. 1 2 Grimal 2012, Introduction.
  5. George 2003, p. xi.
  6. 1 2 3 George 2003, pp. xi–xii.
  7. TAIPEI-MANILA ROW: Premier ‘sorry’ over delayed measures May 16, 2013