Peter Ackerman’s legacy: Tackling the world’s toughest conflicts

As one of the foremost experts on nonviolent conflict, Peter Ackerman spent much of his life studying totalitarianism and working to find ways to advance democratic change. Ackerman, a member of the Executive Committee of the Atlantic Council’s Board of Directors and the founding chairman of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), passed away on April 26 at age 75. 

As a tireless advocate for democracy around the globe, he collaborated with the Council on several projects to advance the cause of freedom. In reaction to his passing, leaders across the Atlantic Council network shared tributes to Ackerman and the mission that drove his work.

Jump to a tribute:

Frederick Kempe: ‘Singularly committed to his causes’

Hans Binnendijk: ‘His purpose was to promote human freedom and avoid war’

Paula J. Dobriansky: ‘A man of conviction and action’

James G. Stavridis: ‘His vital work opposing authoritarian regimes around the world will sail on proudly’

Matt Kroenig: ‘Until the very end, Peter was fighting’

Mathew Burrows: ‘He was very open to hearing others’ views’

Ash Jain: ‘A determined advocate for freedom and democracy’

‘Singularly committed to his causes’

Peter Ackerman was an original, whether he was fighting to introduce ranked-choice voting, break up what he considered the Republican-Democrat duopoly over American politics, change presidential debate rules, empower civil resistance to totalitarian regimes, introduce the Fourth Democratic Wave with the Atlantic Council, or improve his tennis game through relentless focus.

I knew Peter as a friend, as a victim of his more skilled tennis strokes, as a debate partner, as an executive committee member of the Atlantic Council board, and as a partner on several projects advancing democracy in the world.

His like come around rarely, singularly committed to his causes, rightfully proud of his extraordinary wife and sons, devoted to his friends, and unflinching in his convictions.

I’ll miss the frustration of our worst arguments, the delight our shared laughter, the challenge of our probing conversations, and the satisfaction in our common cause for democracy.

Frederick Kempe is the president and CEO of the Atlantic Council.

‘His purpose was to promote human freedom and avoid war’

Peter Ackerman has been a close friend for more than half a century. His passing is a loss to our nation and to the world as well as a great personal loss to me. He was unique and irreplaceable.

Peter was immensely creative. He always searched for the reason things didn’t work well and then set out to fix the problem. He was a fearless change agent. He understood that sometimes one needs to disrupt a bit in order to create and improve. Whether in business, democracy promotion, defeating dictators, American electoral reform, and even in tennis, he would bring his unique perspective to the situation and design creative solutions. He improved my tennis serve.

Perhaps his greatest contribution was to nonviolent resistance as a means to overthrow dictators. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were among his heroes. His purpose was to promote human freedom and avoid war. He stressed the importance of strategy and courage in these endeavors. He was the principal thought leader in this field, writing well-received books, producing movies, and founding the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. 

Peter had just finished his book called The Checklist to End Tyranny, which he told me was the culmination of all his work in this field. In the weeks before his death, he traveled to the nation of Georgia to teach a workshop based on this book.

Peter felt for a long time that the American political system favored our two political parties to the exclusion of independent voices. That, he believed, was driving our nation to alternate between extreme positions at the expense of the middle. So he took action to correct this flaw by introducing an online primary in 2012 called Americans Elect and working to include independent candidates in the presidential debates. He encouraged ranked-choice voting in his writings and among his many influential friends and associates.

In the business world, Peter was the founder of FreshDirect, the online home-delivery grocery business that set the pace for the industry. It created the model that we all used during the pandemic to bring food into our homes.

Peter understood the importance of institutions to drive change. The Atlantic Council was one of several beneficiaries of his attention. 

Peter and his wife Joanne raised two remarkable sons—one an Olympic wrestler and Harvard mathematician, and the other a Marine combat veteran and best-selling author. 

He leaves behind an amazing legacy. 

Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow in the Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

‘A man of conviction and action’

Peter Ackerman believed in the universality of freedom and that, through nonviolent protests and resistance, democratic change could be advanced. He was a man of conviction and action. Among other projects, he funded the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies as well as countless training workshops for Central Asian, Iraqi, and North Korean dissidents. As chairman of the Freedom House board, Peter had a clear vision and passionately put forth many initiatives which benefited those deprived of their rights in all corners of the globe. I especially remember how he organized a three-part conference about North Korea which attracted much attention, especially in the Far East.  

Peter was a remarkable member of the Atlantic Council’s executive committee. True to form, he was quite engaged and always made a difference. I feel privileged to have worked with Peter in various capacities and know well how he has left an indelible mark on the furtherance of human rights and democracy. He was both a good friend and colleague. I will miss him! 

Amb. Paula J. Dobriansky is vice president of the Scowcroft Center, a member of the Atlantic Council Board of Directors, and former US under secretary of state for global affairs.

‘His vital work opposing authoritarian regimes around the world will sail on proudly’

Peter was a brilliant American business leader, a scholar of non-violent protest nominated for a Nobel Prize, and a proud PhD graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, which he supported so strongly. But more importantly, he was a devoted husband and father, a mentor to so many of us, and a marvelous friend to me. I shall miss him terribly, but his vital work opposing authoritarian regimes around the world will sail on proudly—in large measure due to the breadth of his intellect and the depth of his passion to that singular cause.

—Adm. James G. Stavridis is a retired four-star US Naval officer, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and member of the Atlantic Council Board of Directors.

‘Until the very end, Peter was fighting’

Peter Ackerman died with his boots on. At 5pm on April 26, Peter and I were on the phone discussing a joint Atlantic Council-ICNC research project on how to bring about a global “Fourth Democratic Wave.” We had received constructive criticisms on the project, and we were discussing a memo Peter planned to write to counter the criticisms. 

He left us later that evening. 

Until the very end, Peter was fighting for his longstanding passions of promoting nonviolent civil resistance, bringing down dictators, and making the world a freer place. His contributions to global democracy will be sorely missed, but we will honor his legacy by continuing this important work. 

Matthew Kroenig is the deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

‘He was very open to hearing others’ views’

I worked years ago with Peter on a project concerning the growth of authoritarianism. While it is not especially special that funders are involved with the project they support, Peter was special in that even after the project had been wrapped up, he stayed in contact, sending notes and books on topics that he thought I would be interested in. Peter had definite views on how to counter growing authoritarianism, but he was very open to hearing others’ views. He was also a very kind man. He and I had substantive differences, but it never stopped us in developing a friendship.

Mathew Burrows is the director of Foresight in the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative and co-director of the Scowcroft Center’s New American Engagement Initiative.

‘A determined advocate for freedom and democracy’

Peter Ackerman was a determined advocate for freedom and democracy. He believed fervently in the power of nonviolent civil resistance to affect change and foster democratic transitions, and he devoted an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources to advancing this cause. His voice and his passion will be sorely missed. As we mourn his loss, I hope we can build on the legacy he leaves behind and find ways to catalyze support for pro-democracy movements that are striving to counter authoritarianism and advance the cause of freedom in so many places around the world.

Ash Jain is the director of the Scowcroft Center’s Democratic Order Initiative.

Further reading

Related Experts: Frederick Kempe, Hans Binnendijk, Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky, Matthew Kroenig, Mathew Burrows, and Ash Jain