From START to START II: Dynamism and Pragmatism in the Bush Administration's Nuclear Weapon Policies

By Cohen, David B. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview
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From START to START II: Dynamism and Pragmatism in the Bush Administration's Nuclear Weapon Policies


Cohen, David B., Presidential Studies Quarterly


During the fall of 1989, the Cold War that had waged between East and West for more than four long decades came to a rapid halt. Communism, which had consumed and shaped the thinking of most American policy makers during this time, was rapidly retreating as an international force. Nuclear weapons, however, which many claim kept the "long peace" between the two superpowers, stayed firmly in place. Still in the process of being modernized, tested, and deployed as if the year were 1959, nuclear weapons remained the great equalizers. As long as the Soviets maintained a vast nuclear arsenal, they would continue to be seen as a superpower despite their crumbling economy. However, the revolution of 1989 set in motion a similar revolution in nuclear arms control between the United States and the Soviet Union. President George Bush oversaw a watershed period in the relations between the two superpowers, especially in the area of strategic relations.

The purpose of this study is to examine the Bush administration's nuclear weapons policy following the momentous events of 1989. This area of inquiry has been relatively under-examined in the post-Cold War era. Just a stroll through the local university library and it becomes evident that there is a dearth of such timely analyses. This was not the case a decade ago. The 1980s, complete with Ronald Reagan's fiery rhetoric about "evil empires" and "windows of vulnerability" spurred a host of studies on the topic. The end of the Cold War resulted in a waning of interest in strategic weapons as the perception of a loudly ticking doomsday clock grew fainter. This relative lack of attention to the importance of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era leaves a serious gap in the scholarly literature and it is hoped that this study will fill part of this void.

Although few would argue that a return to the days of the Cold War would be beneficial, the former period had two advantages that the current period lacks: relative stability and predictability. The two superpowers knew what the unwritten rules of the "game" were and governed their behavior accordingly. The new era, however, is fraught with rapid change and a lack of predictability. Now is precisely the time when a fundamental re-evaluation of the goal and purpose of nuclear weapons is critical. To complete this task, it is necessary to examine what policies the United States has carried out in the first few years of this new age. To figure out where to go, it is important to take a look at where one has been.

Two areas are examined regarding the Bush administration's nuclear weapons policies: nuclear arms control and strategic doctrine. By focusing on these two issue areas, a clearer picture of American nuclear policy during this period will emerge.

The article examines the period from July 1991, when the first START accord was signed, to January 1993 and the end of the Bush administration, when START II was completed.(1)

Bush as Captain of the Foreign Policy Ship

Although the intent of this study is not to examine the inner workings of the Bush administration's foreign policy process, a brief foray into the White House is necessary. Unfortunately, as with every recent presidential administration, documentary evidence and primary source material concerning the Bush administration's foreign policy-making apparatus is scarce. This is a particular problem regarding the highly secret area of arms control and nuclear weapons. However, three basic facts emerge from the available evidence.

First, George Bush was the major player in his administration's foreign policy process. Bush made all major decisions and was involved heavily in policy making.(2) Bush's hands-on approach to foreign policy was in direct contrast to that of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Whereas Reagan preferred to delegate responsibility to subordinates, leading by ideological generalities, Bush preferred to get involved in the details of policy.

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From START to START II: Dynamism and Pragmatism in the Bush Administration's Nuclear Weapon Policies
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