The Legacy of a Globalist: Remembering Dr. Alex Petersen

January 23, 2014

It sadly comes as no surprise to even casual observers of Afghanistan that 21 innocent people lost their lives after the Taliban carried out its latest terrorist attack in Kabul. However the target itself, a popular Lebanese restaurant where Afghan and Expats alike would share meals and was one of the few places for casual meetings in the new Afghanistan came as a shock – as did the identities of the victims. In particular, a personal friend and Eurasia scholar Alex Petersen was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Having just arrived 5 days previously to teach at the American University in Afghanistan, he was excited to be doing cutting-edge research on the ground and teaching the next generation of Afghan leaders. As we exchanged notes about a co-authored paper we were working on that highlighted the need for a comprehensive approach to the Turkic world in foreign policy, Alex added fresh new perspectives even while apologizing that he would not be able to finish his portion until he had fully settled in.

The tragedy of Alex’s passing is both a personal to all that knew him and a professional loss for a field and region that desperately needs more intrepid scholars like him. A globalist from birth, Alex spent more time in Eurasia than any other American scholar I’ve known, seeking to build friendships and generate new ideas about a part of the world that is often forgotten by the DC policy community. Universally liked with a memorable style and a hearty laugh, everyone in DC knew him by name, from Ambassadors to interns, whom he treated just the same. Alex is not the friend I thought I would lose on the frontlines of Afghanistan. There was no better ally and friend to Eurasia than him.

Due to Alex’s prolific contributions through his research and efforts to connect people and organizations – as evidenced by his book, recent blog, and affiliations, his loss is already being felt by the next generation of foreign policy leaders. Having founded the London branch of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and started a series of Eurasian research projects that stretched from Azerbaijan to China, Alex inspired partnerships and avoided the petty turf-battles for which DC policy elites are infamous.

Alex had gone to help Afghanistan as a private citizen rather than as a soldier and he was slain too young by people who had no idea of the treasure they laid to waste. The fact that one of our own was killed on the frontlines in the pursuit of knowledge and research is a wake-up call to all of us. Scholars travel to war zones and hostile environments to report back their findings from the ground, but often do not have the same organizational support or protections that their counterparts in government, the military, and even media organizations have. Not to mention that in the modern age of warfare frontlines are blurred and there is no safe space for civilians anymore. Still, people like Alex willingly do it every day because they believe in the pursuit and power of knowledge.  People like Alex live for it and, as we are sadly reminded, sometimes die for it. Policy expertise as refined as Dr. Alex Petersen’s cannot be replaced, but it can be honored in the same way we honor the lives of those that are lost every day on the battlefield. Alex’s legacy will ultimately be carried forward by the next generation of scholars for whom he was a leading light in an evolving region that still is finding its way two decades after its birth in the Eurasian heartland. Therefore, while we mourn the loss of Alex, one of the best geopolitical minds of our generation, we honor him through the legacy he leaves behind.

 

Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project and previously served as a Senior Adviser to the U.S. Department of State. He is a contributor to War on the Rocks.