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 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, has 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 said. “He is a model of nonpartisanship, and people know that he is serious, that he is credible and that he has integrity in the positions he represents.”
Elizabeth Dibble, a former member of the foreign service who is 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.”
“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,” Dibble said. “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 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 is 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.”
“He is tenacious and works extremely hard,” Jackson said. “He finds opportunities where others see roadblocks, and he is a problem-solver.”
Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said Kozak is “incredibly smart, pragmatic and has a keen sense of what will work and what won’t work because of the depth and breadth of his diplomatic experience.”
Dieker agreed, noting Kozak is “a masterful and endlessly inventive government operator who invariably figures out how to move the ball forward even in the most complex circumstances to advance U.S. values and interests.”
At the same time, Kozak has served a role model and mentor for numerous colleagues, and while holding strong opinions, treats his colleagues fairly and with respect, Dieker said.
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.”