An Important Voice, Silenced: Remembering Alexandros Petersen

A sharp geopolitical mind.

Readers of The National Interest will note with particular sadness the death of Alexandros Petersen in last week’s Taliban attack on a Kabul restaurant frequented by many foreigners connected to nongovernmental organizations. Petersen was one of three Americans killed in the attack, along with Lexie Kamerman, who, like Petersen, was associated with the American University of Afghanistan. (The third person had not yet been officially identified when this piece was filed.)

The suicide attack, employing both a bomb and gunfire, killed some twenty-one persons, including thirteen foreigners. The attack was quickly condemned by the White House and other governments around the world.

Petersen, an expert on Central Asia, China as a land power and the geopolitics of energy, contributed numerous pieces to TNI between the fall of 2010 and last October. His work was characterized by a dispassionate sensibility, an ability to identify budding geopolitical trends, and a depth of knowledge on the topics on which he focused his attention. When he filed a piece to TNI editors, they could always count on a sharply focused analysis and a fresh perspective presented in lucid prose.

For example, he produced a piece, with Raffaello Pantucci, for the November/December 2012 print issue of TNI that focused on China’s importance as a land power. Most analysts of the growing Sino-American competition, the authors noted, had viewed this development as largely a naval challenge for the United States. But this perspective, they argued, missed "the significance of the vast landmass of Central Asia, where China is consolidating its position into what appears to be an inadvertent empire." Citing the great geographic scholar, Sir Halford Mackinder, they argued that Central Asia represents "the most pivotal geographic zone on the planet," and added: "Greater attention needs to be paid to China’s growing presence in Central Asia if the United States is to understand properly China’s geopolitical and strategic rise."

The piece recounted in detail what China has been doing in recent years—involving security, economic and cultural initiatives—to consolidate its position in key strategic locations of Central Asia. These efforts, the authors noted, didn’t seem to be the product of any comprehensive strategy. But, taken together, "they show a picture more comprehensive than is often appreciated." The ultimate message was that other outside powers should engage in the region if they don’t want China’s position on that crucial landmass to become, perhaps even by default, commanding.

Pantucci, who was a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences at the time the China piece ran, collaborated with Petersen on a number of pieces for TNI and other publications. He later became a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. Petersen himself had only recently taken on his teaching position at the American University of Afghanistan. Before that, he served as an adviser to the European Energy Security Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and also served stints at the Eurasia Center, the Atlantic Council and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Peterson is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West, which was published in 2011. His byline has appeared in numerous publications of note, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Foreign Affairs and the Economist. He earned degrees from King’s College London and the London School of Economics.

Petersen was an early voice heralding the new era of American energy potency. Writing in the TNI online edition in January 2012, he noted that the United States was becoming less dependent on foreign energy imports by the year and extolled the "energy diplomacy" mission of the new Bureau of Energy Resources. With America taking on a more dynamic role as global energy player, he argued, "we will need a more nimble international energy policy. Our interests have expanded far beyond just maintaining low oil prices."

Also in the TNI web edition, Petersen demonstrated an attentiveness to the circumstances and challenges of Azerbaijan, sandwiched between Russia and Iran on the shores of the Caspian Sea. In April of last year Petersen warned of intensifying Iranian belligerence toward Azerbaijan—tough language from Iranian legislators laying claim to territory that now constitutes Azerbaijan. He called this a menacing development that accentuated America’s need to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, which he said it likely would use to extract concessions from weaker neighbors such as Azerbaijan, Iraq and Bahrain. "Any U.S. strategy," argued Petersen, "should attempt as much as possible to include these neighbors in its scope."

Petersen’s clear voice and analytical acumen, manifest in these spaces in recent years as well as in other publications of note, constituted a significant contribution to the discourse of our time on geopolitical matters that fell within his purview. That voice and that analytical acumen will be missed.

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