Things To Act
Tuesday, June 29, 2004
Ultimatums and Justifiable Use of Force
Analyzing the ending of Brigham City (discussed below, spoilers there and here) got me thinking about the way ultimatums interact with using force.

In the scene in question, the hero has finally discovered the identity of the serial killer, and confronts him in his home, where the SK is cleaning his gun. During the course of their Heated Emotional Discussion, the SK is busy reassembling the gun, obviously not a good thing for Our Hero. The hero tells him a couple of times to stop, or to put the gun down, but the SK doesn’t (though in fairness to the hero, the conversation they were having was rather on the distracting side). The eventual resolution, of course, is quite predictable, though the gore is tastefully kept off-camera.

It’s interesting to look at the incentives here. The hero, not being particularly bloodthirsty, wants to avoid shooting the SK if at all possible. The SK, on the other hand, evidently prefers escape to death to capture. The hero doesn’t know the SK’s preferences, of course, but is strongly conditioned not to fire if it’s at all avoidable. The SK knows that the hero is extremely reluctant to shoot. The net result of these preference structures ends up being that the SK ignores the hero’s orders to put the gun away, and the hero risks his life by waiting until the last possible moment to fire. The hero makes several useless ultimatums, each less credible than the one before, before the bloody end.

This seems to have strong parallels to international relations, though the comparisons are, of course, oversimplifications, and complicated by the nature of attempting to assign moral values to collective actions. Nevertheless, suppose a ‘good’ country (or, if you prefer, the UN) knows that a ‘bad’ country is guilty of some atrocity—human rights violations, treaty violations, harming a citizen or citizens of the ‘good’ country, etc. Oversimplifying the ‘good’ country’s choices, it can either ignore the problem, issue an ultimatum, or respond with force [or perhaps apply economic or diplomatic pressure, but we’ll assume for purposes of the analysis that those have been tried and didn’t work]. The ‘bad’ country knows that the ‘good’ country doesn’t like using force. Thus, if an ultimatum is issued, the ‘bad’ country is likely to push the envelope, if not outright ignore it.

The ‘good’ country thus seems to have a few options. It can make it a policy to have an extremely lenient standard of what it chooses to complain about in other countries, preferring to ignore problems rather than getting sucked into the dilemma. It can make it a policy to issue ultimatums, but revert to the ‘ignore’ setting if the problem doesn’t go away. It can issue ultimatums, but not enforce them until the last possible moment, whatever that is defined as. Or it can either use force to stop atrocities, or issue only one ultimatum before using force.

It seems possible to construct a moral worldview to justify any of these possibilities, depending on one’s beliefs about the use of force, or about the issuance of noncredible ultimatums. One could argue for the ‘total ignore’ option by citing instances the importance of turning the other cheek, or the folly of getting involved in international affairs. One could argue for the ‘ultimatum, then ignore’ option for the same reasons, with the pragmatic (if dishonest) reasoning that the ultimatum might be obeyed, and no harm comes from trying it. Supporters of the fourth option (always follow through) would disagree, however, arguing that 100% enforcement is the only way one’s ultimatums will be believed, and the ability to issue credible ultimatums will do more to deter bad behavior and thus justify the rare uses of force the result from this policy. The third option (‘last possible minute’) can be seen as either foolhardy or self-sacrificing (‘we’ll let them get one shot in before responding’).

Many of the recent foreign policy disputes seem to stem from disagreements about which model is best, or which model describes reality. Supporters of the Iraq invasion claim that the U.S.’s previous approach was effectively policy two—16 ignored UN ultimatums that didn’t appreciably change Sadaam’s behavior. Invading Iraq, in this view, was justified because Sadaam was ‘assembling the gun’ of WMDs, and we had to stop him before he could shoot us (or innocent civilians, in practical terms). Supporters further claim that the U.S. can now make credible threats—as in the Libya situation.

Opponents of the Iraq war seem to fall into two rough camps. One camp is largely opposed to the use of force in any circumstances, and one seems to prefer the third option—wait until the last possible moment (we will ignore, for purposes of this analysis, those who vehemently oppose force by Republican presidents, but don’t seem to mind Democratic intervention). Those who prefer the ‘last possible moment’ argue that acting ‘preemptively’ is unjustifiable, and force should be avoided until the last possible moment, however defined.

I think any of these worldviews can be justified, given certain moral premises. However, there are generally high transaction costs to switch from one to another. Each course has its risks, as well. Reliance on force can lead to mistakes—issuing an ultimatum when it isn’t necessary, or being forced to carry out a foolish ultimatum, or generally abusing one’s power. It also relies on counterfactuals for justification—‘it would have been worse if we’d waited.’ Reliance on pacifism can lead to large numbers of innocents getting hurt in the name of the country feeling good about itself. Waiting until the last moment to use force may allow one to avoid some of the mistakes of the force-happy alternative, but it also treats minor violations of rights as inconsequential, and sends confusing signals about what countries can and can’t expect to get away with (as well as encouraging low levels of ‘bad’ behavior that don’t provoke a response).

I’m not entirely sure where I fall politically. Currently, I lean toward a model in which one should issue ultimatums carefully, but rigorously enforce them once issued. However, I can see why others might feel differently.

Perhaps the moral question at stake is whether violation of an ultimatum, once given, is sufficient to justify a forceful response. In BC terms, would the cop be justified in shooting once he had said ‘put down the gun or I’ll shoot,’ and the SK hadn’t put down the gun? One can argue on the one hand that refusal to comply with the ultimatum is evidence of bad intentions; one can argue on the other hand that the ultimatum itself may have been immoral or unwise, and that the immoral action (shooting before the danger materialized) is not justified simply because one promised to do it.

In any event, it seems to me that we run risks no matter what we do, but that the more we communicate our reluctance to use force, the more emboldened our enemies will feel. Thus I wonder how those who are strident in their pacifism deal with questions of enemy incentives and ultimatums.

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