The Power of ultimatums – the forgotten diplomatic tool

Ultimatums have gotten a bad name. This is probably because of what happened in the run-up to World War I when they were thrown around somewhat promiscuously and ended up being partly to blame for the ensuing world-wide catastrophe.
Then came the League of Nations which was supposedly going to obviate - as, in principal, the United Nations today (hardly a ‘United’ body) - the need for such, followed by Nazi Germany’s and Hitler’s very effective (from his perspective) re-employment of them. Had the Western Democracies been able to intervene in the late Thirties with their own ‘ultimatums’, things might have turned out very differently.
But as everyone knows, they did not, mistakenly relying on the almost comatose League of Nations. When Britain finally did get around to issuing what for all intents and purposes was an ultimatum on the Polish issue, the gauntlet was finally thrown down and, though it took some 5-6 more years, Nazi Germany did finally feel its ‘bite’ (as ultimately did Japan).
Of course, anyone can issue an ‘ultimatum’ as North Korea and Iran seem to be in effect doing today; but what distinguishes a ‘just ultimatum’ from megalomaniacal posturing or propagandistic invective? The dissenter could rightfully object, one man’s or woman’s ultimatum is as good as another’s. This may be true up to a point, but only ‘up to a point.’
What distinguishes a rightful or – if one might dare – ‘a righteous’ ultimatum from simple bullying or thuggish violence or threat of extermination is something we have heard in parallel milieus: “Democracies do not make war upon each other” – that is, ultimatums pronounced by Democracies (societies with functioning institutions of long-standing, effective and largely incorrupt judiciaries, and proven track-records of protecting human rights) have not generally been wrong-headed or, for that matter, unjust or undeserved.
Take the British relating to the invasion of Poland above or the United States to Japan prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One can debate the wisdom or justness of the latter, but it must be admitted that the War – which could have gone on to cost several million lives and endless additional suffering above and beyond that of the two bombs - ended almost immediately.
I am now going to say some very controversial things but informed by the insight of hindsight. The United States after World War II was basically the only functioning nuclear power. Had ultimatums been given to the U.S.S.R. at the time, not to develop nuclear weapons, 30-40 years of stalemate and misery might possibly have been avoided. The same might have been said for the development of China’s nuclear program, but by then things probably had gone too far to affect such an ultimatum. One is speaking here about the development of nuclear weapons, not other political issues. But instead, the United States, probably rightfully and rationally chose to rely on the newly-formed United Nations.
What am I saying here is that countries which were not democracies with long-standing democratic institutions and reliable judiciaries, the beneficiaries of perhaps 400 years of ‘Western’ political thinking about the separation of ‘Church and State’ and basic human rights and common decency, should probably never have been allowed to go nuclear – and this possibly could have been achieved through the use of ultimatums. Now it is too late and this is like crying over spilt milk. But now we are facing something else – nuclear terrorism.
Given this state of affairs, what now is the crux of the problem? The crux of the problem now is ‘the Security Council’ itself – with an emphasis on ‘Security.’ One can have a debating ‘Assembly’ as the United Nations has come to be. There is and can be little harm in such an exchange of ideas and a forum of this kind. The problem – again with hindsight – comes with the development of ‘the Security Council.’ Like the European Union today, membership in such an august ‘Council’ should have been reserved for functioning “Democracies”– nations, as we said, with proper and highly cherished constitutional institutions, an ostensibly ‘fair’ judiciary (nothing being really ‘fair’), a regard for human rights, individual liberty, and cultural diversity, etc.
Such a ‘Council’ could have fostered world peace in a proper way, not according to a nuclear ‘balance of terror,’ and the values we in the West hold dear and have developed over 3-400 years of history of separation of Church and State, individual and unalienable liberties, democracy could have been fostered. But as anyone can obviously see, this is not the situation today where basically Thug Capitalism and Totalitarian Theocracy are on the march; and where the United Nations is for the most part a Wilsonian-type endless debating society with almost no final veto-proof sanction regime or effective ultimatum power.
So how would such ultimatums ideally function in the world today? Well, first of all, in the Libyan Crisis, one can see how effective this could be. Gaddafi could have just been given an ultimatum (which actually now seems slowly in the making, but not in the UN. That will never happen – in Nato) and that would have been that. The situation would have changed overnight and instantaneously, as in Japan at the end of World War II. Probably the same might have been said for Egypt two months ago.
But what of North Korea, Iran, and even perhaps Pakistan? How could ultimatums have been of use here? These countries should not be allowed to have nuclear arsenals or go nuclear – period! Why might or does one include Pakistan - because everyone now knows that Pakistani technology helped or was helping some of these ‘Third World’ Thugacracies go nuclear and the problem with them is they have no democratic institutions or regard for human rights – nay, life at all! Many have announced just such an ideology – if you are not one of them, you have no right to live and ultimately, they will see that you don’t. Gaddafi is behaving in just this way in Libya today. Fortunately he has no nuclear weapons or WMD anymore having been impressed by what he took to be a Bush Administration ultimatum in 2002.
So what am I suggesting be done? Very simple – these countries of demonstrated cruelty or irresponsibility who are attempting to go nuclear or are nuclear and have no respect for democracy, common decency, human rights, or human dignity, male or female, should be given ultimatums. This is not something one has endless amounts of time to effect. Some of these countries have already announced their intention to see others eradicated from off the map.
One must take such invective and megalomaniac pronouncements seriously, especially when uttered in the context of nuclear armaments and developing missilery. I do not wish to see nuclear bombs of whatever kind go off in storage containers in Los Angeles, New York, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, or Boston harbors. I do not wish to see a neutron bomb or such like go off in the stratosphere over the United States (the US to some being ‘Public Enemy no. 1’ or ‘the Great Satan’), in effect, making civilized life untenable there. Other countries are not normally the immediate target; nor do I do wish to wait until that time. Like them or not, the Chinese and Russians, if not democratic, were at least, sane by comparison.
This is why I say, ‘democratic ultimatums’ are not normally reprehensible or unwarranted – that should be the defining characteristic (as it should have been the  UN Security Council, but has not been). Countries like North Korea or Iran – just like Libya today – should be given ultimatums: desist or disarm immediately. Really, only Libya’s need be ‘immediate’ – it not involving nuclear weapons. These others could be given a specified timeline: six months, one year, whatever – just so they are going to be observed and not be ‘frittered away’ in endless debate at the UN. This would be so that people involved in or near these nuclear areas could leave or get out of the way. After that, such installations or stockpiles should be eliminated one way or the other – nor is one speaking here about nuclear power stations – only weapons’ programs.
And what of Israel? First of all, like it or not, Israel is a democratic country with respect for constitutional institutions and an independent judiciary. Like her or not, as ‘Little Satan,’ she is under publically-pronounced existential and genocidal threat. The Jewish People have already tasted what this means 60-65 years ago. One can debate the rights or wrongs of Israel’s politics or policies; but there is no debating what the publically-pronounced intentions towards her have been. Israel could have taken out such problematic nuclear installations of threatening countries easily with a few missiles or so, had she not been concerned about civilian loss of life, world opinion, or dependent upon the actions of world watch-dog committees or institutions.
But Israel, unlike other countries, is not in a position to wait on endless public debate. Democracies do not lightly give ultimatums. Thug Capitalists, Totalitarian Dictatorships or Theocracies do. Israel should issue just such an ultimatum tying it to a timeline or timeframe of say three months, six months, one year, or whatever was thought to be advisable or possible under the circumstances. Then all civilians and associated personnel would have had plenty of prior warning desist, vacate, or depart. Then the nuclear installations should be taken out by whatever means deemed appropriate. One does not mean ‘total war’ – one is only speaking about nuclear installations and the rocketry to deliver weapons of this kind.
The present situation in Libya, not being nuclear, would be much simpler to address and it would be easy to send Libya such a message. If things like this had ever happened and the ‘Western Powers’ were ever serious, then countries like Libya would have gotten the message, just as she has before.
Finally Pakistan – why Pakistan? An unstable country with an unstable government like Pakistan with questionable or at least hardly-functioning democratic institutions should not be allowed to have the 5th largest nuclear stockpile in the world. India, a real democracy, is not really a nuclear threat to Pakistan, despite the latter’s protestations to the contrary.  Pakistan has contributed to this world-wide proliferation among irresponsible Third-world nations with little or nothing to lose.
When Pakistan has developed the kind of long-range rocketry and missile-capability to go along with this, then the USA will definitely be in danger of a rogue nuclear attack. Just what would happen if the Taliban were to take control in Pakistan or, for that matter, just get control of a few of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, which in today’s world is not an unreal possibility. Ok, some nuclear weapons fine – but not an arsenal of this capacity.
This is where ultimatums come into play in the modern world. One ignores their use at one’s own peril. Democracies, in particular, over a very long period of time have definitely abjured their use, which has brought us to the present situation, fraught as it is with destructive implications and imminent danger.