Causes of Change in National Security Processes: Carter, Reagan, and Bush Decision Making on Arms Control

By Newmann, William | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Causes of Change in National Security Processes: Carter, Reagan, and Bush Decision Making on Arms Control


Newmann, William, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The structure of national security decision making at the presidential level is one of the most crucial, yet often neglected, aspects of the study of the presidency. Since the 1980s, neorealist and neoliberal theories that focus on system-level causes of state behavior have become the dominant paradigms for studying international relations. As a result, the flood of scholarly work on state-level theories such as bureaucratic politics, organizational process, and presidential management of national security decision making that dominated research agendas in the 1960s and 1970s has been reduced to a trickle.(1) Scholars of domestic political decision making and the Executive Office of the Presidency, however, have maintained an interest in how presidents organize their staffs for decision making. This article will merge some of the earlier literature on national security decision making with some more recent literature on presidential decision making. Its focus will be the ways in which national security decision-making structures are changed by international and domestic political forces as well as presidential management of the bureaucratic and organizational politics within the executive branch. The importance of this work lies in its portrait of the structure of national security decision making as a dynamic and evolving process. It argues that presidents make modifications in their standard interagency processes for the deliberate purpose of achieving specific political goals. Adjustments in policy are the impetus for adjustments in process.

The work of Walcott and Hult (1995) provides the analytical framework for this article. Walcott and Hult identify the three sources of decision-making structure as (1) the political environment, (2) the organizational dynamics/role of the advisory system, and (3) the role of the president. However, this article adds to their ideas by narrowing the focus to changes in decision-making structures. The dependent variable is defined as temporary or permanent adaptations or modifications in an administration's standard national security interagency decision-making process. The independent variables examined include changes in the international environment, changes in the domestic political environment, and attempts at policy innovation by the president. Since the political environment, the advisory system, and choices made by the president generate an initial interagency structure and process, shifts in these variables may render that original design less useful to the president. He will then make modifications. Case studies of arms control decision making from the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations will be used to test this hypothesis. The case studies analyze the Carter administration's March 1977 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II (SALT II) proposal, the Reagan administration's initial Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) proposal of May 1982, and the Bush administration's arms control speech of September 1991, which contained the genesis for the START II agreement.

First, this article examines the influences on decision-making structure and suggests a model of how variations in those influences affect national security decision-making structures. Following this, three briefcase studies explore the initial interagency processes of each administration; the causes of deliberate, presidentially inspired alterations in that structure; and the resulting temporary or permanent adaptations. The following section will revisit the original framework and suggest the addition of three contextual factors--time, ideology, and the international system--that carry special weight in their influence on decision making in each of the three categories of independent variables identified by Walcott and Hult (1995). A final section discusses the implications of the case study findings. In particular, these cases highlight the broad range of influences on the policy process and the inability of the standard interagency model to provide presidents with policy processes that will satisfy their political needs in a timely fashion. …

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