THE Reagan administration has ended debate about appointing a czar to oversee arms control policy. It will not happen, although Paul Nitze, who negotiated with the Soviets on Euromissiles, will serve as a special adviser to Secretary of State George Shultz. But the debate raised some basic questions about how the administration is organized to conduct foreign policy. Put simply, if there were no problems, why was the idea broached in the first place?
The management of foreign policy usually takes a back seat in public commentary to more glamorous concerns like great themes, summit diplomacy, and the verdict of history. But presidents who do not pay enough attention to the how as well as the what of foreign policy risk getting in trouble. That risk is apparent again, today.
Evidence for this view can be seen in today's Washington debate over arms control. Much of it centers on personalities: Does this assistant secretary of defense have too much authority? Does that official of the arms control agency have the knives out for his rivals? In fact, however, there will always be strong personalities at the hub of government; they will inevitably have differences of view and seek to build mini-empires; and no president would want it any other way if he is to get decent advice.
The test is whether this healthy pulling and hauling gets out of hand. If it does, the sitting president is ultimately to blame for failing to exercise leadership. But he may also have failed to create a system for managing US foreign policy that will increase the chances that bureaucratic thoroughbreds will pull together in harness.
Two management factors are most of concern in the arms control debate: the balance of skills in each center of national security decisionmaking and the system for bringing issues to the president.
If the Defense Department seems to some observers to have inordinate authority in arms control, that is largely because it has expertise both in depth and at the senior levels where it counts. The State Department's top man in defense-related issues is an assistant secretary: Talents aside, bureaucratically this is no contest.
The general lesson goes further: Presidents can't just appoint smart foreign policy experts to all senior jobs and expect the system to work well. Some basic rules of balance are required: If No. 1 in each agency and the National Security Council is good at analyzing policy, No. 2 must be a good manager. If one knows economics, the other must know political-military affairs. Someone at or near the top must be adept at diplomacy; someone else at fitting foreign policy into the domestic political mold. And someone somewhere in the government must be able to think about foreign policy as an integrated whole. On this last point, the Reagan administration still suffers from lack of a ''great conceptualizer.''
How issues come to presidential attention also helps separate foreign policy success from failure. During the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, there was an elaborate pyramidal system of meetings, each with its formal agenda and policy paper, before issues reached the president. The White House was the locus; the national security adviser had prime authority for coordinating the process and the views of cabinet-level colleagues. This generally meant that foreign policy issues were thoroughly thrashed out before the president became engaged. In theory his role reflected the obverse of ''the buck stops here'': No decision not of presidential quality should reach the Oval Office.
To be sure, Ronald Reagan husbands his authority, his national security adviser plays a respected role in drawing colleagues together, and there is a tightly structured system for foreign policy papers and meetings. But the locus of battle on different issues is dispersed about Washington, not focused in the White House. More important, there is no formal requirement that Cabinet-level officials meet regularly in the absence of the President. That is true even of the lower-level committee that has been created to monitor the new arms control talks.
This is a modest-sounding but important factor, especially since Reagan (alone among presidents since Eisenhower) favors meetings of the full National Security Council - often the first time his key subordinates have to confront one another on major issues. There is no doubt that the climate changes in any meeting that includes the President of the United States. Without a Cabinet-level pressure cooker, the potential increases for bureaucratic end runs , confusing informality, and a lack of sharpness in devising alternatives for the President.
Like past administrations, this one also suffers from having no effective means for planning US foreign policy more than a few weeks ahead. This is especially true in US-Soviet relations, where the government also needs to nurture institutional memory, the starting point for healing the breach in US attitudes toward our superpower rival. Both shortcomings could be overcome in part through a White House-based planning council including both senior officials and a career staff.
If the US is to approach the forthcoming Geneva talks on arms control with coherent policy - bureaucratically blessed in Washington and subservient to the President's wishes - President Reagan should first review how his administration does its foreign policy business.
Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of ''Restructuring National Security.''