Geopolitics is a method of studying foreign policy to understand, explain, and predict international political behavior through geographical variables. General Petraeus, in a conversation with moderator Ash Williams, Vice Chair of J.P. Morgan Asset Management, focused on the Russia-Ukraine war and the consequences for the US and European nations, and on the rise of China. General Petraeus is a Partner at the New York-based global investment firm of KKR and Chairman of the KKR Global Institute, which he established in 2013. The institute identifies geopolitical risks when evaluating potential investments and then mitigates them.
“During the past decade, the world has truly transformed from an era of benign globalization in which economics largely determined geopolitics to an era of renewed great power rivalries in which geopolitics very much constrains investment, trade, economics, and a variety of other interactions,” he told the Club. “The continued rise of China, the resurgence of a very aggressive Russia, obviously having invaded Ukraine without provocation in a particularly brutal manner, the continued challenge posed by North Korea, that posed by Iran, a number of cyber threats that exist, and a host of other challenges, all again, make this time very, very challenging for the United States and for our allies around the world.”
Vladimir Putin has a very grievance-filled view of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, especially of Ukraine. He doesn’t believe it has a right to exist as a sovereign country believes it should be part of the Russian Federation. He’s really tried to reassemble as much of the Soviet Union as he possibly could.” Petraeus noted that Russia, as one of the top three natural gas, crude oil, and coal producers in the world, together with its agricultural goods, has the money to pursue Putin’s ambitions.
“The Ukrainians have been phenomenal. This is their war of independence and they’re fighting it that way. The Russians completely underestimated how President Volodymyr Zelensky would perform as a wartime president. To be fair, his first two and a third years in office had not been particularly distinguished, but he has been positively Churchillian.”
“The irony is that no one has done more for the cause of Ukrainian nationalism than Vladimir Putin. The other irony is that Putin set out to make Russia great again and what he has really done is make NATO great again. The greatest gift to NATO since the end of the Cold War is Vladimir Putin.” As a result, Petraeus noted, two historically neutral countries, Sweden and Finland, have applied for NATO membership.
“Vladimir Putin, I think, is still convinced that the Russians can out-suffer the Ukrainians, the Europeans and the Americans, the way that Russians historically out-suffered Napoleon’s army, out-suffered Hitler’s Nazis, and so forth.” But despite the differences in the size of the two opposing forces, “Ukraine has fully completely mobilized. Everybody is committed to this. The business people are engaged in it, the IT experts, they’re all engaged in this. And the innovativeness, the entrepreneurship that they’re employing is really extraordinary.”
General Petraeus also outlined the principals of strategic leadership, “the contrast of which couldn’t be more clear” in this conflict. “This is about as cut and dried as a situation can be literally. On the one hand, a kleptocratic, dictatorial, murderous leader invading a neighboring country without provocation and in a brutal manner. On the other, a country, a democracy, however flawed to be sure, a free market economy trying to withstand and again fighting for its very independence.”
Petraeus told the Club that he believes the US government is generally providing a sufficient level of weapons and other support to Ukraine and that the current administration and Congress “have done a very, very impressive job. I think that is hugely important, because it shows the world that we are still the indispensable nation. We will lead the world.”
The US commitment to supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia “translates very importantly into deterrence when it comes to China, because your potential adversary not only has to see your capabilities, but also your willingness to employ them.”
“It’s more assertive, more aggressive actions, not just in the Indo-Pacific region, but literally around the world are causing enormous changes in how it is that we invest, because of course, everyone invests with China.”
Noting that labor costs in China are going up as its population is declining, Petraeus said “One of the big questions has always been, ‘Can China get rich before it gets old?’ which is what Japan did, or ‘Does it get old before it gets rich?’ And actually, the answer is not completely clear.”
On how the Ukraine-Russia war might end, General Petraeus said he thinks it is “very unlikely” that Putin would use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Noting that Russia “has a culture of committing war crimes,” Petraeus said “We have to convince Putin that this war is not just unwinnable, it’s unsustainable. And then and only then could you have meaningful negotiations.” He admitted he doesn’t know how long that might take.
In the meantime, there are winners and losers among other global powers in all these difficulties. The winners include those who export natural gas, including the US, “which thanks to our ingenuity, deep directional drilling, hydraulic fracturing, seismic big data, our agile capital markets, our legal structure…we’re the biggest crude oil producer in the entire world as a result of that. We’re also the biggest natural gas producer in the entire world.” Other winners he said include India, which has gained important advantages over China.
General Petraeus joked at one point that he was runner-up to Vladimir Putin as Time magazine’s Person of the Year. The world however, has since changed. “We currently face the most numerous and challenging array of threats that we have had, arguably, since the end of World War Two, not just the end of the Cold War. Not more dangerous, perhaps, than certain periods of the Cold War, but much more complex.”
(You can also view the entire Club meeting on YouTube.)