Watching a Retriever Teach Foreign Policy


Jan 15, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle on January 15, 2006.

I'm a foreign policy analyst. Oliver, the enormous young golden retriever who has happily devastated my family's life, is not. In fact, he's not an analyst of any sort — he isn't the sharpest tool in the shed. But watching him teaches a lot about making policy, and foreign policy especially.

Oliver is patient. He takes life pretty much as it comes. Oliver has never heard of Lyndon Johnson, but he implicitly understands Johnson's line: "Sometimes, like a mule in the rain, you just have to stand there and take it." In this California winter he does a lot of that. He's less patient at mealtime, but even then he's prepared to wait. Not that he has much choice. Oliver's never heard of democracy, but if he had, he'd understand that building democracy requires patience. It can't happen overnight.

Oliver understands sticks, but on the whole he responds better to positive incentives — carrots. That was especially true when he was a small puppy. Dog treats worked wonderfully, and still work well. Indeed, "treat" is one of the handful of words he understands. And he doesn't have to get a treat every time; the promise of treats once in a while will reinforce the behavior: Oliver stops and sits at street corners, treat or not.

The key for Oliver is making clear that his interests coincide or overlap with mine and my wife Karen's: If he does well, he gets the promise or the fact of a treat, and the better he behaves, the more he gets to do other things he likes, like being indoors with the family.

Now, that he's older, he responds to "No, Oliver" — well, at least some of the time. But if I get angry and yell, he looks at me with his most uncomprehending face. He plainly has no idea what I'm doing. A temper tantrum is not training for Oliver.

Neither is a temper tantrum a policy.

Beyond temper tantrums, Oliver's lesson for the United States in trying to shape the world is that the more we look like a normal, self-interested state, the more we lose our claim to lead other nations and their peoples. To lead, we have to demonstrate that we are taking their interests into account as well as our own.

In shaping Oliver's future, consistency is critical. My wife and I have to be clear that we are the alpha dogs in Oliver's life, just as the United States is the alpha dog in global politics.

Oliver shapes his life to ours, so the more there is some clear pattern to the life we shape for him, the better. Oliver eats, for instance, pretty precisely on the 6s, a.m. and p.m., and gets closed into his crate between 8 and 9.

Consistency is imperative for Oliver because we can't explain to him what's going on. There is no way to apologize for dinner at 9.

Consistency is imperative in foreign policy because other nations sort themselves out in relation to U.S. power. In foreign policy, there is in principle the opportunity to explain zigs and zags, or mistakes, the international equivalents of Oliver's dinner at 9. But hardly anyone in the Muslim world is now listening to us, and elsewhere there is so much noise produced by all nations' politics and perceptions.

I once worked on foreign policy for Jimmy Carter, who was smart enough to keep diametrically opposed ideas about policy in his head at the same time — like pursuing detente with Moscow but at the same time pinging them over human rights — and to work on reconciling the contradictions.

But the process drove even our allies nuts. Even if they were smart enough, they might not be able to anticipate our reconciliation of the contradictions. Or else, the forces unleashed in their own politics would complicate the process of adjusting to us.

Finally, Oliver is no whiner. To be sure, not much bad ever happens to Oliver. His is, as they say, a dog's life. But when it does, he never complains.

As a puppy, he was running with me, watching me more than where he was going, and hit a wall. The thud was audible, but Oliver never uttered a sound. In fact, Oliver only barks when he is afraid. (This, too, may be suggestive for foreign policy, but just how much can one retriever be expected to teach?)

Years ago, a wonderful Israeli colleague, the late Avi Plascov, used to say, whenever we Americans would complain about the dilemmas of foreign policy for the United States: "So, whoever said it was easy to be a superpower."

Thus, without saying so, Plascov noted one clear difference between retrievers and superpowers: Being a dog is pretty easy. Ask Oliver.

Gregory F. Treverton is a senior analyst at the Rand Corp. and associate dean of the Pardee Rand Graduate School. He was vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the first Clinton administration, and his "Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information" was published in 2001 by Cambridge University Press. Contact us at

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