Afghan attack took young American ‘destined for greatness,’ teacher says

Alexi Petersen (From YouTube video)
Alexandros Petersen (YouTube)

Last Friday night in Afghanistan, the Taliban attacked a popular restaurant in Kabul frequented by Westerners, killing two Americans. One was Alexandros Petersen, a brilliant young man who was an expert on grand strategy and energy politics and who had graduated from Georgetown Day School, a private school in the District, in 2003. (His younger sister, Lydia, graduated from GDS last spring). Petersen had arrived in Kabul just a week earlier to teach political science at the American University of Afghanistan.

One teacher at Georgetown Day with  whom he was especially close during his time at GDS and after was Sue Ikenberry, who said he had a special combination of brilliance and focus that marked him as “destined for greatness.”

Here, taken from an e-mail, she describes memories of him as a GDS student in her Advanced Placement Comparative Government and Politics class:

It was my first year teaching that Comparative class, and I really didn’t entirely know the material (you don’t pick up in a summer of reading the nuances or sometimes even the basics of the governments and politics of UK, France, Germany, China, Russia, Iran, Mexico, India, Nigeria, not to mention the EU.) Sometimes I’d just not know a question or sort of run out of material, so Alexi would raise his hand and just start talking about something interesting and international, quite frequently Robert Mugabe. He’d hold forth, quite effectively, until I got my bearings, and then turn it back to me. There is no student to whom I’ve ever felt more gratitude. He could have sat there and thought “I know more than this teacher, so why am I in this class…?” but instead he devoted himself to helping me learn how to teach the class. He was a remarkable student and a remarkable person, and that was obvious at a young age.

He really was someone quite special, and he had the quality of loyalty. He was loyal to his friends, he was unshakably loyal to me. I remember maybe in 2005 we went to a Robert Kagan lecture together (I had done some work for the NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] and was invited to the annual lecture, and I thought Alexi would be about the only person in the world who would want to sit there with me…). We rode the bus to get there and someone on the bus heard us talking and asked about GDS. Alexi immediately introduced me as the “best teacher at the school.” He could be sweetly extravagant that way. … Here was a teacher who hadn’t known how to pronounce [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. … from whom he had nothing to gain. … but he was still as kind as he could be.

After GDS, he attended Kings College in London, she said (“Alexi loved the British system because it allowed him to go right into what interested him”), and  studied history, later turning to international relations and  the geopolitics of central Asia. He earned a doctorate in philosophy from the London School of Economics and won numerous fellowships and scholars-in-residence posts. He published a book, “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West,”  and this past year helped develop an influential Web site called China in Central Asia.

Petersen would visit Washington, D.C., often, and when he did, he would speak to Ikenberry’s class, as he did late last year. She wrote:

He spoke to my class in November, and got students so interested in the topic of China’s growing hegemony in Central Asia that several switched topics for [a final] research paper to go into depth about what Alexi had said. I’d say the bottom line was that as the Soviet Union fell, Turkey, thinking that many of the peoples in Central Asia were Turkic-speaking, moved into the area, but that the Chinese in the past decade have moved into that area in a huge way. His message to students was that China was doing this while no one paid attention, and that we should, both from a business standpoint and geopolitically as well. My Comparative students were mesmerized (as previous classes had been).

Here was this young guy — now only a decade older than they were, who had written, traveled, developed an expertise. … They were in awe of him. I loved it because Alexi showed them what could be accomplished  with effort and focus.

Here’s an interview with him:

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · January 21