We owe this further regard to humanity, and especially to the lives and peace of the subjects, to declare to that unjust nation, or its chief, that we are at length going to have recourse to the last remedy, and make use of open force, for the purpose of bringing him to reason.

—Emerich de Vattel. The Law of Nations, 1758.

Hostilities should never be commenced without first giving an ultimatum, and, if it is unsatisfied, a formal declaration of war. War is the most terrible action known to mankind. Even when the enemy has attacked by surprise and desperate fighting is underway, a decent respect for human life and civilization requires that the casus belli be spelt out and the conditions for peace stated.

To issue an ultimatum and then not follow through undermines the credibility of the issuing nation and leads to avoidable wars. It is equally culpable to threaten ‘serious consequences,’ without spelling out exactly what they are. Nothing causes more wars than ambiguity as to what actions will provoke what response. This is evident in the history of both world wars, wherein the Germans, confused by Britain’s alternate condemnations and protestations of good will, half-hearted censures, and grovelling accommodation, mistakenly believed the British would not fight when it came to the crunch.

To cultivate peace, nations must cultivate a reputation for never making idle or half-hearted threats. Justice and reason should be consulted to determine where the threshold for war lies, allies should be consulted, referendums held, and then a precise ultimatum issued. Once an ultimatum is made, it should be acted upon when triggered. The practice of passing UN resolutions, of implementing half-hearted sanctions, and of making meaningless threats only serves to encourage tyrannies to keep pushing until they finally pass the threshold for war. There seems little doubt Saddam Hussein would have preferred not to have been executed, yet unfortunately for him and all those who died in the Iraq War, it was impossible for him to discern at what point his actions would definitely result in that outcome.

To have the best chance of averting war, an ultimatum should be crystal clear. Just as air traffic controllers should never give ambiguous directions, neither should an ultimatum be ambiguous. It should:

  • Be clearly described as an ultimatum;
  • Explain why it is being issued;
  • Detail what is required to avoid hostilities;
  • Lay down what military aims will be sought if it is ignored;
  • Act as legal authority for the conduct of the war in the event it is ignored, tightly circumscribing the actions of those directing its conduct.

The following is an example of a well-drafted ultimatum:

Ultimatum to the tyrant and people of North Korea

We the people of the United States of America by referendum have authorized and directed the issuing of this ultimatum and the fulfilment of its terms.


A The people of North Korea have allowed themselves to be held in abject tyranny for over fifty years;
B The tyrant of North Korea, his father, and father before him have held the people of North Korea in abject tyranny for over fifty years;
C The tyranny inflicts concentration camps, torture, starvation, rape, murder, unauthorized medical experimentation, forced labor, forced abortions and starvation on the people of North Korea;
D The existence of an enslaved and starving people ruled by a tyrant offends the dignity of humanity;
E The tyranny ordered the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, thereby deliberately murdering 115 innocent men, women, and children;
F The tyranny has persisted in selling arms, missiles, and nuclear technology to terrorist groups and other tyrannies;
G The tyranny has ordered the abductions of the citizens of South Korea and Japan;
H The tyranny has counterfeited hundreds of millions of dollars of American currency, effectively stealing from the American people;
I The tyranny has persisted in the development and testing of nuclear weapons and missiles constituting a clear and present danger to the people of the United States of America and their allies;
J The tyranny has repeatedly intimidated the people of Japan by firing missiles towards and over that country;
K North Korean soldiers, without declaration of war, attacked and murdered the U.S. servicemen Captain Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett;
L The tyranny has manufactured and exported narcotic drugs to poison the children of other nations;
M The tyranny provided sanctuary to the terrorist Japanese Communist League Red Army Faction;
N The North Korean navy, without declaration of war, attacked and captured the American warship USS Pueblo and murdered the U.S. sailor, Duane Hodges;
O The North Korean navy, without declaration of war, attacked and sank the South Korean warship ROKS Cheonan, murdering 46 South Korean sailors;
P The tyranny has expressly and publicly threatened to attack the United States of America with nuclear weapons without cause or warning.


Within thirty-three days from the signing and publication of this ultimatum:

  1. The tyrant of North Korea presents himself, or is delivered dead or alive, to representatives of our armed forces;
  2. The armed forces of North Korea stand down and surrender all military facilities and their weapons to representatives of our armed forces;
  3. The officials and people of North Korea accept all lawful orders given to them by representatives of our armed forces;


  1. A state of war will exist between us and the tyrant and armed forces of North Korea;
  2. The objective of the war will be the unconditional surrender of the armed forces of North Korea and the death of the tyrant;
  3. The air forces of the United States of America will commence a bombing campaign to degrade all civil, military, communications, power, and transport facilities within North Korea which, in their judgment, will assist the achievement of the stated objective. Then, in concert with the armed forces of South Korea, the land forces of the United States will invade and conduct search and destroy missions which, in their judgment, will assist the achievement of the stated objective;
  4. Military, security, or civilian personnel of North Korea apprehended to be a threat to our forces will be liable to be killed, disabled, or captured.


  1. This ultimatum is complied with, the tyrant will be exiled to the island of St. Helena to live out the remainder of his days in relative comfort.


  1. The people of North Korea will thereafter be entrusted to the tutelage of the people of South Korea with a view to their progressing to become a liberal, constitutional democracy.

Signed on behalf of the people of the United States of America by their president.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove