The Use and Utility of Ultimata

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Ultimata feature as a core concept in the coercive diplomacy scholarship that emerged during the Cold War. Ultimata are seen to constitute strong coercive threats that consist of a specific demand from the opponent, a deadline for compliance, and the promise of violent punishment in case of non-compliance. Efforts in the coercive diplomacy scholarship to identify factors that favour compliance by the target of coercion have failed to produce a consensus on the utility of ultimata as a tool of coercive statecraft.

I argue that the dearth of historical evidence considered in combination with the singular focus on compliance in the extant coercive diplomacy scholarship has obfuscated the purposes, the functions and the effects to which political leaders deploy ultimata. This has not served the scholarly understanding of threat behaviour in the interstate system. Political leaders issue ultimata for different purposes and to different effects across a variety of contexts. By implication, ultimata do not constitute a single-class phenomenon and should therefore not be assessed using a singular concept of utility.

I develop this argument through an examination of different views on ultimata in Western strategic, political and legal thought since Antiquity until the present. The examination puts the focus on compliance in the historical context of the Cold War by showing that prior to this period, scholars and practitioners attributed ultimata with a wider range of purposes. I introduce a new dataset consisting of eighty-six ultimata issued in the period 1920-2015 and discuss their manifold manifestations. A quantitative analysis of these episodes confirms various macro-level correlations between favouring factors and outcomes that have been previously reported in the scholarship. The analysis shows that ultimata are only followed with partial or full compliance in five out of ten cases, although in almost nine out of ten cases the coercer eventually achieves their objectives in part or in full. At the same time, the analysis suggests that these high-level correlations conceal important differences between the dynamics of ultimata episodes. On the basis of a structured focused comparison of eighty-six ultimata I present a four-pronged typology that explains their different purposes and functions: the dictate, the conditional war declaration, the bluff, and the brinkmanship ultimatum. The typology lays down operational criteria to distinguish different types of ultimata, explains the bargaining dynamics of these episodes using historical evidence, and offers a differentiated concept of utility rooted in their purposes. Case summaries for the eighty-six ultimata are provided in the Annex.

In addition to contributing to the scholarly understanding of the use and utility of ultimata as well as of state threat behaviour more generally, the insights offered in this thesis also have contemporary policy relevance in light of the surge of assertive state behaviour in recent years, which has been accompanied by an uptick in interstate crises. A better understanding of the purposes and dynamics of state threat behaviour will better prepare policymakers for important challenges they are likely to confront in the period to come.

Date of Award1 Mar 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorRuth Deyermond (Supervisor) & Jan Honig (Supervisor)

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