General Petraeus Addresses Colgate Community for Family Weekend


Over Family Weekend, General Petraeus spoke before the Colgate community. He discussed a variety of foreign relations topics, focusing particularly on American hegemony.

On Saturday, October 28, General David H. Petraeus, the former commanding general of the NATO Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Commander of the United States Central Command, and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), spoke to an assembled crowd of Colgate students, faculty, alumni and parents in the Colgate Memorial Chapel on current challenges to U.S. national security and how to approach foreign policy. 

Petraeus, perhaps most well-known for his personal philosophy that “soldiers and marines ought be nation-builders as well as warriors,” was introduced by Professor of Political Science Robert Kraynak. The Political Science department pooled resources with the Center for Freedom & Western Civilization and the student-led College Republicans to schedule Petraeus’ appearance on-campus. Kraynak opened with remarks on the intellectual gap and dissonance between “traditional” academia intellectuals, such as those at Colgate, and military intellectuals such as Petraeus, which, Kraynak hoped, will eventually be bridged by conscious effort from both sides.

Petraeus, after making some brief introductory remarks, began with an explanation of how the “American world order” came into being, praising the post-World War II American hegemony for spreading democracy and American ideals to every corner of the Earth. And yet, Petraeus said, U.S. hegemony is perhaps currently  in its weakest state since its inception. It is under assault from a cluster of rising, anti-American states that Petraeus calls the “Revisionist powers.” These states attempt to disrupt the “status quo powers” that hold higher positions in the world order.  Petraeus believes that the core revisionist powers are China, Russia and Iran, each of which presents specific challenges for the U.S. and its political guidance. Of the three, China is believed by Petraeus to be both the most powerful and challenging because of  its close entanglement with the U.S. and complicated economic relationship. The U.S. imports more material goods from China than any other state, and only exports to two other states. This makes it difficult to contest the “sphere of influence” that China is building essentially unopposed in Asia and Africa. 

Additionally, Petraeus argued that China is leading the changing face of warfare, combining an integration of traditional ground-air-sea and cyberattacks more effectively than any other state, and combining the two with brutal efficiency in a style called “hybrid warfare” that he sees as the future of military conflict. Petraeus also noted Russia’s role in this.  

“[Russia] occasionally grab[s] out for land on their periphery … but the real problem Russia presents is their ability to influence society,” Petraeus said. 

Petraeus went on to explain that Russia, as a quasi-European nation, has been able to fundamentally weaken NATO and the European Union (EU) through distract-and-destroy tactics, undermining core U.S.-friendly institutions around the globe through a combination of focused political pressure and fringe organization support, with the apparent goal of increasing polarization.

Iran, understandably, occupied the majority of Petraeus’s speech, as its specific challenge as a core revisionist power represents most of his experience, as well as being the most tangible, physical threat to global American hegemony. Namely, Iran stands in for global Islamic fundamentalism, the core ideology behind America’s last seven wars, with the last non-Islam related U.S. war having ended in 1999. 

Petraeus noted briefly the complete failure of simple physical combat against guerilla warriors fighting for an ideology. Vietnam represented the crux of such attempts, for all its miserable failure. This concept formed the basis for Petraeus’s idea of the soldier/nation-builder, intended to sway moderate Muslims and the unaffiliated away from Islamic fundamentalism by repairing the damage that such terrorists do, and in doing so strike at the ideology rather than the people.  

Petraeus concluded his prepared remarks with an assertion of the global threat to American hegemony, which, in short, he declared as significant and increasing. To counter the fundamental precepts behind the slow rise in genuine threats to American domination, Petraeus was able to hammer down five core points, which he called the “Five Big Ideas” taken from his decades of experience fighting insurgents. 

The first of the Five Big Ideas is that ungoverned regions inevitably are exploited by fringe groups, the second is that action must immediately be taken to counter them and the third is that U.S. leadership is imperative in furthering U.S. hegemony. The fourth Big Idea is that responses must strike at the ideology and not merely the physical presence, and the last idea is that generational struggle is the name of the game. We cannot merely “clean up” insurgents in a year and go home.

The speech concluded with a forty-minute question and answer period in which various individuals sought Petraeus’s opinions on the current administration, North Korea, the war in Afghanistan, and boredom, among others. 

Responses to Petraeus’s speech were generally mixed. First-year Alex Imperatore, called Petraeus a “True American hero” who ought to be idolized and respected.

However, others felt that Petraeus’s speech itself was somewhat unsatisfying. 

“I thought his question and answer portion was much better than his prepared speech. His prepared remarks were rather shallow, but it was clear from his question and answer portion that he knew what he was talking about,” junior Wil Stowers said. 

Senior Alex Taylor agreed that while the lecture was less novel, the question and answer period raised interesting issues. 

“I thought that General Petraeus’s talk was interesting, especially since I am an International Relations major and much of what he said echoed the concepts and debates that we discuss in our classes. He didn’t, however, say anything unexpected; he identified the same major challenges faced by the U.S. that most national security experts would probably choose,” Taylor said. “I think the question and answer session was much more interesting, because he talked a little bit about what the daily life of a general in Iraq was like. Overall, General Petraeus seemed like a down-to-earth guy who really tried to relate to Colgate students, which I thought was pleasantly surprising, considering the amount of influence he had at one time. I am also surprised that he was not given a larger venue and more advertisements, which is usually accorded to Family Weekend speakers.” 

Contact Max Goldenberg at [email protected].