[FOUNTAIN]Ultimate ironyAccording to Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta gave an ultimatum to Athens in 431 B.C. The expanding city-state of Athens was posing a serious challenge to the existing power, Sparta, by closing off trade with Megara, a country located west of Athens and an ally of Sparta. Sparta warned that Athens must either reopen trade or face war. As history recounts, Athens refused the ultimatum. The history of ultimatums goes back a long way. The word comes from the Latin ultimatus, meaning “final.” A final condition or deadline usually accompanies an ultimatum. If the condition or deadline is not met, war is inevitable.
Thus, an ultimatum is more of a final step before declaring war rather than the last effort to avert a war.
With the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907, ultimatums became a part of modern warfare. (That was the same conference where King Gojong dispatched Lee Jun, who committed suicide in protest when Japanese officials prevented him from attending.) Powerful states that convened to close the era of imperialism signed a clause that mandated nations to issue an ultimatum before going to war.
An exemplary case of an ultimatum was issued on July 23, 1914, by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In a letter sent to Serbia, the empire demanded that the Serbian government call to account the assassin of its prince and break up the organizations that played a role in the assassination. Forty-eight hours were given for the demands to be met. The Serbian government, at the deadline, sent a reply in which it said it would accept all conditions except one. The one request it rejected was the Austro-Hungarian government’s demand that it take part in an investigation. Four days later, Austro-Hungary declared war against Serbia and World War I began.
Ultimatums lost much of their political relevance after the founding of the United Nations in the wake of World War II. The United Nations Charter and a multitude of international conventions banned war between nations with the exception of wars in self-defense and wars based on UN resolutions. Thus, U.S. President Bush’s Tuesday ultimatum against Iraq has echoes of the imperialist era.
So, ironically, ultimatums have become the starting point of configuring the international order in the 21st century.
by Oh Byung-sang
The writer is a deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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