Feds at Work: Five decades of helping shape U.S. foreign policy

Helped protect U.S. interests abroad and advance democracy and human rights around the world

Michael Kozak with the State Department (Photo: Lawrence Jackson)

During his 47-year career at State Department under nine presidents, Michael Kozak has been a steadfast advocate for democracy and human rights, leading efforts to advance U.S. foreign policy and challenge authoritarian regimes from Central and South America to Eastern Europe.

Kozak played a key role in negotiating the Panama Canal treaty in the1970s, participated in efforts to end the Nicaraguan civil war and seek the ouster of Panama’s dictator in the 1980s, and was involved in seeking to restore democracy to Haiti and challenging Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba during the 1990s.

As ambassador to Belarus, Kozak stood firm against autocrat Alexander Lukashenko in the early 2000’s, pressed for reforms in Ukraine while supporting that government against Russian aggression, and now serves as the State Department’s chief human rights official while separately helping shape U.S. policy toward the repressive regime in Venezuela.

“Michael Kozak is a career civil service officer who is an institution at the State Department, having been at the forefront of major regional and international foreign policy issues for decades,” said Christopher Robinson, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

“He has stepped up and been willing to take on challenges to protect human rights and our values,” Robinson added.

Elizabeth Dibble, a former member of the foreign service, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the central theme of Kozak’s career has been “the advancement of democracy and human rights.”

She added, “Mike has been held in high regard by presidents and secretaries of state in Republican and Democratic administrations, and often has been given some of the most difficult assignments. This is a sign of respect, a testament to his abilities and the mark of a true civil servant.”

While some of his early assignments focused on Central America, Kozak was a member of the U.S. mediation team that implemented the Egypt-Israel peace treaty during the Reagan administration, and he played a role in seeking a return to democracy in Chile during the reign of military dictator Augusto Pinochet in the late1980s. He also assisted the U.S. response to the genocide in Darfur in 2004 and helped secure the safety of State Department sources following the release of classified diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks in 2010.

In addition, Kozak served as a senior official on the White House National Security Council and as the acting Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-Semitism. He is now the senior bureau official for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, where he supervises a 120-member team, and each year oversees the drafting of nearly 200 human rights reports.

In one of his more challenging assignments, Kozak was dispatched to Cuba by the Clinton administration in 1996 and served as the chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section until 1999.

“In face-to-face meetings with the senior officials of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s regime, Mike was a vociferous advocate of democracy and human rights, and a stalwart defender of the brave activists who stood up to this totalitarian regime,’ said Mark Dieker of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Nancy Jackson, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, said Kozak “never shies away from a challenge” and has been consistent in “standing up to dictators and oppression.”

She added, “He finds opportunities where others see roadblocks, and he is a problem-solver.”

Kozak, who shows no signs of slowing down, said his philosophy has been centered on trying to “empower people in countries around the world” and to advance the cause of freedom.

“Particular policy issues are less important if the people have a peaceful means to bring about change instead of turning to extremes and revolution,” he said. “That is the unifying factor in jobs I have done.”

Michael Kozak is one of 26 finalists for the 2019 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, presented annually by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service to celebrate employees who have made significant contributions to our nation’s health, safety and prosperity.

Help share their stories using #Sammies2019, and please help us recognize more inspiring federal employees in 2020 by submitting your nominations now.

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