Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidential Beliefs and the Reagan Paradox

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidential Beliefs and the Reagan Paradox

Article excerpt

On December 8, 1987, President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in Washington, D.C. The treaty was followed seven months later by the sight of a friendly Reagan and Gorbachev strolling across Moscow's Red Square, after having signed the final documents implementing the INF treaty. Reagan's actions were those of a president who had attacked both the "evil empire" and arms accords, while relying on huge increases in defense expenditures. This seemingly paradoxical presidential behavior elicited many attempts to explain the seemingly inexplicable, with the governing assumption being that changes in independent variables had somehow produced a dramatic shift in the presidential stance.

This analysis posits that no paradox existed for the president. For Reagan, the INF treaty represented an unfolding of events long predicted by his beliefs, and the treaty was a step toward what he most sought--the actual abolition of nuclear arms. The following discussion begins by critically examining contemporary explanations of the Reagan paradox, and then elaborates an alternative "belief-system" analysis. It is the combination of Reagan's developing views of arms control and the Soviet Union, the testimony of close advisers, the choices made during bargaining over arms control, and content analysis of press conference responses that establishes the roots in personal belief of presidential behavior judged paradoxical.

Explaining the Anomalous: A Critique

The INF treaty led to the destruction of 859 American and 1,836 Soviet nuclear missiles, all with ranges of 300 to 3,400 miles. Only about four percent of total nuclear armaments were eliminated, but the accord was the first Soviet-American treaty to provide for on-site monitoring and the physical destruction of nuclear weapons. Reflecting on these events, Gorbachev expressed the common wonderment at the seemingly protean Reagan: "Who would have thought in the early eighties that it would be President Reagan who would sign with us the first nuclear-arms reduction agreement in history?"(1)

Scholars and other observers shared Gorbachev's puzzlement at a president acting "counter-intuitively."(2) Contemporary attempts to explain Reagan's presumably anomalous embrace of arms control often reflected the varying premises of scholarship bearing on presidential choice, while also sharing the pervasive inattention to presidential beliefs as significant explanations of presidential behavior.

Although some analyses focus on presidential "ideology" or on "belief systems" to understand presidential choices,(3) Most contemporary scholarship looks elsewhere. Approaches tacitly taking their bearings from Richard Neustadt, with his portrait of the modem president as an isolated officer seeking to maximize personal power through presidential choice, tend to focus on models of rational choice, electoral calculation, or the processes of "governmental politics" Graham Allison identifies. Very different analyses draw 6n the logic of James David Barber's preoccupation with "character" to focus largely on presidential personality. Other scholars find the key to explanation in specific elements of the president's environment, from Stephen Skowroneck's eroding regime cycles to Theda Skocpol's powerful bureaucrats.(4)

However distinctive these approaches, in the aggregate most seem to imply a view of how presidential choice should not be regarded. For example, Neustadt instructs us that "the purposes of presidents are not to be confused with their intentions at the start; these are a matter, rather, of responses to events." Barber warns that the publicly proffered reasons of presidents are never a guide to explanation: "analysis of the content of the reasons the actor offers for his actions is of limited utility . . . nor are his expressed intentions much help."(5) In short, the American presidency is no teleological tale, marked by the unfolding of sustained and publicly stated presidential intents as they encounter, re-shape or are tempered by circumstance and event; instead, presidential choices more closely resemble the game of pin-ball-whatever a president's original beliefs, he is impelled forward by unpredictable events, and hurled into an environment constrained by the barriers of "political space" or "regime sequences" or the bureaucratized state, with presidential decisions usually emerging largely as adaptations to these exigencies. …

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