It was the prelude maneuver to both world wars. It is the most dramatic gambit in international politics. Dangerous or foolish, it is the power play in its purest form.
Whatever one might say for or against it, nothing clarifies a situation like an ultimatum. Everybody knows where you stand. You win or lose by it.
For now President Clinton and the NATO allies appear to have won by their ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs. The artillery that pounded Sarajevo over the long months is silent, if not entirely out of range. The threat of air strikes against them finally brought the Serbs around. A less harrowing life resumes in Sarajevo.
Now there is talk in the councils of NATO of trying it elsewhere in Bosnia, to lift the siege of Srebrenica, get supplies in and the Canadian troops out; to open the airport at Tuzla.
Would it work? Would the Serbs collapse again? That is impossible to know, of course. Maybe a more manageable question is why they acquiesced this time. It might give a clue to their future behavior.
At least four times the prospect of air bombardment was raised over the heads of the Bosnian Serbs, twice last August, once in January and this latest one, in February. The first three times the Serbs were unimpressed. Why?
"This is the only ultimatum we meant, I'm convinced of that," said Michael Clarke, the executive director of the Center for Defense Studies at King's College in London. Previously, he added, "the main unconvincing thing was that the allies weren't united."
It was something the Serbs could easily see.
"In August, air strikes were an American idea which Britain and France opposed," he continued. "They didn't think it would work, and they were afraid for the troops they have on the ground in Bosnia.
"Then at the NATO summit in January, the British and French were proposing it. They made the point we may have to use air strikes to lift the siege of Tuzla and Srebrenica. But at that time Clinton was talking about Sarajevo. Again we weren't united."
Then on Feb. 5 came the direct hit on the crowded market in Sarajevo. Sixty-eight people were killed. Pictures of it flashed around the globe.
At last unanimity arrived in Brussels. The French, with the largest contingent with the United Nations in former Yugoslavia, went over to the U.S. position. The British reluctantly went along.
The Serbs, said Mr. Clarke, "finally damned well believed it."
Whether they will another time must depend on their perception of NATO's willingness to launch the bombers. That willingness became even more evident early last week when U.S. fighter jets shot down four Bosnian Serb planes found violating the no-fly zone. It was the first such NATO attack since the no-fly zone was declared in October 1992, despite many violations by the Bosnian Serbs.
Thus, if an ultimatum is to have the desired effect, the country receiving it must be certain the country issuing it will carry out the promised sanctions in the event of disobedience. Almost always there is a time limit given, and the sanctions are spelled out clearly. Any vagueness -- unspecific expressions like "dire consequences" -- invariably dilutes the impact of the ultimatum.
But sometimes the desired effect of an ultimatum is not so obvious. Sometimes, but not always, the country issuing it doesn't want or expect it to be met but has another purpose in mind.
This was the case for what was probably the most famous ultimatum in history. That was the one dictated to the Serbs by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the wake of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.
The Serbs, knowing they were no match for the Austrians, met 13 of the 14 demands in the ultimatum. It wasn't enough. Probably even full compliance wouldn't have been; Austria was determined to punish Serbia.
The ultimatum that brought Britain into the Second World War was of a similar kind, in that Britain never expected compliance. It was announced by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had been the appeaser of Hitler. He told the Germans that if they did not pull out of Poland by Sept. 3, 1939, reversing the invasion of that country, Germany would be at war with Britain.
Chamberlain knew they would never withdraw. They didn't. Britain went to war, and everybody knew why.
But most ultimatums are probably designed to avoid war rather than precipitate it. The country dictating it usually hopes it will be obeyed and frequently will accept only partial fulfillment.
That was surely the case with the Bosnian Serbs, who did not, in fact, comply completely with the NATO ultimatum, which was to withdraw all heavy weapons from within range of Sarajevo or turn them over to United Nations peacekeepers. Some weapons are still within range and still controlled by Serbs, though they are silent.
By doing this the Serbs fudged the ultimatum -- and got away with it.