Ultimatums are dangerous

Posted by John Laforet on August 16, 2012

When an opponent decides to use threats of future action in place of convincing arguments designed to sway their detractors, they give their detractors control of the agenda and the outcome.

Great Britain, still wearing the brilliant media glow of a successful Olympic games, issued an ultimatum to the Republic of Ecuador that has effectively put the small south-American country in the driver’s seat of the former British Empire’s foreign policy.

Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange has been holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London for two months. He is seeking political asylum to avoid being extradited to Sweden to face sexual assault charges. Assange believes the charges are merely a rouse so Sweden can then extradite the Australian national to the United States to face charges relating to the classified information he was involved in leaking. A guilty sentence in the United States could result in Assange receiving the death penalty.

The day before Ecuador was to make it’s decision on Assange’s fate, the United Kingdom warned Ecuador if they did not hand Assange over, the UK Government could remove the diplomatic immunity that embassies are granted, to seize Assange from within the embassy.

This is an extreme measure as typically when diplomatic relations sour, governments simply withdraw their diplomatic staff or are expelled by the host nation – with immunity intact. What the UK government has proposed to do, should they not get their way, is largely unprecedented and will do lasting damage to the concept of diplomatic envoys around the world.

What is particularly troublesome  to the United Kingdom, is that Ecuador did what most do when presented with an ultimatum – they called their opponents bluff by doing exactly what they were asked not to, and did so with open defiance to the threat.

And now marks the quandary the United Kingdom finds itself in.

What to do?

Ecuador has made it clear it will not budge. The UK has been equally clear Assange has no escape route that does involve re-entering their territory, at which point he will be arrested and deported. The UK, United States and Sweden will not commit to preventing his extradition to the United States to face capital charges that could result in his execution, which appears to be why Ecuador is offering the political asylum that frankly his home country should have offered sometime ago (instead they cancelled his passport, preventing his return home or any foreign travel).

The United Kingdom now has a number of unsavory choices to make.

Two days ago, they could have issued a strongly worded rebuke to Ecuador, while respecting the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and allowed Assange to travel to the country unimpeded, but that is now not nearly as possible simply because it would humiliating under the circumstances the UK has created.

The UK could storm the embassy, risking the lives of its armed forces or police, and those of Ecuador’s diplomatic corps and security staff (who might defend the embassy from an armed assault). In doing so, the UK loses its moral authority to defend democracy and freedom abroad and likely hurts its own foreign relations around the world.

A third option and perhaps the only face saving option, would be for Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States to commit to not extraditing Assange to the US to face further charges, at which point, presumably Assange has what he needs and can then go to Sweden to defend himself on the sexual assault changes with the full knowledge and comfort that he will not continue to be passed around by various national governments seeking to charge him with other things as well.

That said, it is highly unlikely the US, UK or Sweden will agree to the third option as it is likely their intention to try him the US over the diplomatic cable leaks, which is why when Ecuador requested these assurances, they could not get them.

So today, the United Kingdom is a real example of why we don’t give ultimatums to adversaries. How possibly can this scenario end well as any capitulation on the part of the UK, however reasonable at this point, will look like they’re backing down, and Ecuador and Assange have no incentive to bow to the UK.

Successful negotiations and communications strategies require thinking through your opponent’s position clearly. Taking such a dismissive approach to what one’s adversary believes often results in unworkable situations like the one above (usually on a far less serious scale).