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Ambassador Series

An Interview with Dan Mozena, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh

Bangladesh Ambassador Mozena

Dan Mozena was confirmed as the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh in 2011. Mozena is a member of the Senior Foreign Service and served as the U.S. Ambassador to Angola from 2007–2010. He has also served as the Deputy Director of the Office of Southern African Affairs at the Department of State from 1993-1995, as Deputy Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan from 1995-1998, and as Deputy Chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia, from 2001-2004. Mozena is a native of Iowa and volunteered in the Peace Corp in then-Zaire before joining the Foreign Service. He received a B.S. in History and Government from Iowa State University as well as an M.A. in Political Science and a Master of Public Administration Degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service? Was it a particular class you took in college, or perhaps your work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire?

I first met a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in 1970, when I was in Nepal on a cultural exchange sponsored by the U.S. youth organization 4-H.  I remember thinking that that looked like a neat way to live. Subsequently, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in then Zaire, I met another FSO, and again thought that this looked pretty neat, so I decided to take the test and, well, the rest is history.

I can trace my interest in exploring the world to my elementary teacher Miss Albrecht.  Born and raised on a small dairy farm in Iowa, I attended a one-room country school where Miss Albrecht was responsible for teaching a total of twelve students spread over nine grades from kindergarten to eighth grade. I remember as a boy in third and fourth grade listening to Miss Albrecht giving geography lessons to the older students. Even though she had never left Dubuque County, she had a way of painting wondrous pictures of the world. I recall her teaching about the Silk Road. I was mesmerized and vowed that someday I would walk on the Silk Road, a dream that came through for me many years later, thanks to the Foreign Service. Miss Albrecht planted the seeds of curiosity that germinated into my Foreign Service career. I am so grateful to her.

The Politic: The 2012 tragedy at the U.S. mission in Benghazi demonstrated the perils faced by U.S. government officials abroad. What has been the most challenging and dangerous moment in your service as a Foreign Service Officer?

As the tragedy of Benghazi made clear, the Foreign Service is a dangerous career. Like coal miners and many others who have dangerous professions, I have adjusted to the fact that mine is a dangerous line of work. That said, I am never complacent about my security or that of the staff of U.S. Embassy in Dhaka. I believe in doing everything possible to minimize risks, so security is at the top of my priorities as Ambassador to Bangladesh.

As I look back on my career, there were so many hair-raising moments, but only once did I think that I was going to be killed. When serving in India, my Indian assistant and I were in Bihar State on our way to have dinner with a local Member of Parliament (MP).  We were running behind schedule and it was already dusk as we drove to the MP’s country residence. As we were going along, three open Jeep vehicles zoomed up from behind. One of the vehicles overtook us and stationed himself in front of ours; the second pulled up alongside our vehicle; the third pulled in behind us. Each Jeep was overflowing with guys armed to the hilt with automatic rifles and wearing bandoliers of ammunition. Looking at the dozens of heavily armed and unfriendly looking goons who had surrounded our vehicle, I reached over and took my Indian colleague’s hand: we each thought that our time had come. In a few minutes, however, we discovered that these armed thugs were a welcoming party dispatched by the MP (himself of checkered reputation) to greet us and welcome us to his constituency. I have never experienced so much relief in my life, before or since.

The Politic: What would you say has been your most fulfilling experience in the Foreign Service?

The most fulfilling experience in my career was when I served as the ambassador to Angola. As Office Director for Southern African Affairs for three years, I knew full well the challenges of relations between America and Angola. I told the then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs that she should not expect too much from me as ambassador. I said my goal was to build the foundations of a bridge of greater understanding between our two countries. The Assistant Secretary and I both thought that that was a reasonable goal. My team and I, with great support from Washington, did more than put in the foundations for a bridge between America and Angola. We built the entire bridge, and Secretary Clinton walked across it and created a Strategic Partnership with Angola, one of only three that America has in Africa. I had never dreamt that such a revolution in our bilateral relationship would ever be possible. I consider that my most satisfying professional achievement.

The Politic: You have served as a Foreign Service Officer for more than thirty years, in a variety of countries such as Zambia, Angola, India and Bangladesh. What would you say is a key ingredient for effective work in the Foreign Service? What is one piece of advice you would offer to an aspiring Foreign Service Officer?

There are many essential elements for working effectively in the Foreign Service. Personal integrity is the fundamental starting point. To that, I would add having vision, a sense of mission, an ability to forge and sustain strong teams that work collaboratively. Endless energy and empowering others are all critical to working successfully. Of course, I could create a much longer list, but these are a few of the more important ingredients to working effectively in the Foreign Service.

Bangladesh Ambassador Dan Mozena

For aspiring FSO’s, I offer several pieces of advice: first, the Foreign Service is not for everyone. It’s for people who love constant change, starting over from scratch every two or three years with each change of assignment.  I have thrived on the challenge of knowing that each new assignment would have me living in a place where I likely have never lived before, doing something that I likely have never done before, with colleagues whom I likely have never met before. To me that is stimulating, but some people enjoy stability, continuity, putting down roots. For such people, I don’t think the Foreign Service would be a good fit. Secondly, the Foreign Service is a way of life, not just a job, and as such it has to work for everyone in the family, including spouse and kids. The day it stops working for every member of the family is the day for a career change. So when entering the Foreign Service, you should recognize that at some point family considerations, e.g., a child with special needs, may force you to change careers. Thirdly, I encourage all aspiring FSO’s to serve in the Peace Corps, as such service is the gift that keeps giving throughout a Foreign Service career. A Peace Corps experience serves as a daily reminder to an FSO that life in the diplomatic world is not representative of the reality of life in the host country. A Peace Corps background enables an FSO to relate with host countries across the socioeconomic spectrum. This is great gift. As ambassador, I am as comfortable chatting with farmers, village ladies, and shopkeepers as I am with ministers and presidents. Peace Corps made this possible.

The Politic: What is the day-to-day work of a U.S. Ambassador?

Bangladesh dan-mozena

Since Embassy Dhaka is the best mission of my career and one of the best U.S. missions in the world (no thanks to me … I parachuted into this Nirvana a year and a half ago!), I can be the ambassador that I want to be.  I truly am the Mission’s Chief Executive Officer; my deputy, the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), is the Chief Operating Officer, and on a day-to-day basis, he runs the mission, which has about 130 American staff and over 500 local staff, not counting the local guard force. As CEO, I bring strategic vision, strategic direction, and energy to the mission. I am the public interface of the mission; I am bridge-builder-in-chief of the mission, always building bridges to the people, civil society and government of Bangladesh. When I presented my credentials to the country’s president in November 2011, I told the president that I would visit each of the country’s 64 districts, which I am in the process of doing. It’s a much bigger undertaking than I had understood at the time. These trips, my many other outreach activities, and my countless speeches and engagements with the media all have helped build broader and stronger bridges between America and Bangladesh. In any given week, I host at least four representational events at my official residence. I am also out attending other such events at least as often. All these engagements are to further build bridges. My day typically starts at 4:30 am and goes to about 10:30 or so in the evening, seven days a week. The schedule is demanding, but such is the life of an ambassador in a country of strategic interest to America.

The Politic: Why is Bangladesh of strategic interest to the United States?

The starting point is the context, the global context. Changes in context have dramatically altered America’s engagement with Bangladesh. Having served as a diplomat in Bangladesh from 1998-2001, I am often asked what changes I see in Bangladesh after an absence of over a decade. The answer is simple: The biggest change since my June 7, 2001 departure from Bangladesh has been in Washington or, more precisely, in Washington’s perception of Bangladesh. During my earlier posting in Dhaka, Bangladesh was a country much loved by aficionados like me and by those who specialize in development work. Otherwise, America’s diplomatic priorities were more sharply focused elsewhere. But what a difference a day can make. The day after 9/11, America’s priorities began a rapid and dramatic shift. America’s security strategy changed as the United States sought to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat those who threaten our nation or our allies and partners.

In this context, America’s strategic engagement with Bangladesh also changed. Recognizing Bangladesh as a democratic, secular state, a state committed to defeating violent extremism, America sought to broaden and deepen its partnership with Bangladesh. More recently, as America and much of the rest of the world “pivots” toward Asia, America’s partnership with Bangladesh is further evolving. America’s strategic interests in Bangladesh are as follows:

  • Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism: A moderate, tolerant, democratic country, Bangladesh, the world’s seventh most populous country and third largest Muslim majority country, is a viable alternative to violent extremism in a troubled region of the world.
  • Advancing Regional Stability: Bangladesh’s improving ties with its neighbors (especially India and Burma) add to the region’s stability, a key interest of America and the region.
  • Promoting Global Peace: Bangladesh is the largest contributor to peace support operations in the world with over nine thousand military and police personnel on the ground in ten different operations. Bangladesh provides trained and dedicated manpower – and womanpower – to help maintain global peace, an invaluable contribution to the international community.
  • Ensuring Global Food Security:  The population of the world is on track to hit 9 billion in my lifetime. America seeks to ensure that all of these people have access to adequate and nutritious diets. This goal cannot be achieved unless the world’s seventh most populous country, Bangladesh, can feed itself.
  • Expanding Trade and Investment: Last year, U.S.-Bangladesh trade surged to over $6 billion. Bangladesh’s exports (mostly readymade garments) surpassed $5 billion; U.S. exports hit $1 billion, double the amount of the previous year. This trade directly impacts both countries, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in Bangladesh and about ten thousand jobs in the U.S. My goal is to double American exports to Bangladesh over the next three years, thus creating another ten thousand needed jobs in America. As Bangladesh strives to become the world’s largest RMG exporter, its exports to America will grow as well.
  • Promoting Core Values: America believes democracies that respect the human rights of its citizens make the best partners for achieving peace, stability and prosperity for the world. Thus, a key American interest in Bangladesh is fostering democracy and respect for human rights.
  • Helping Fellow Human Beings: Americans, like good citizens around the world, feel compassion for those beset by disaster. As we well know, Bangladesh experiences many natural disasters: cyclones, floods, tidal surges, and earthquakes. Over the decades, America has played a leading role in helping Bangladesh cope with the aftermath of these disasters. Now, however, in partnership with the government of Bangladesh, we are helping Bangladesh to prepare for and mitigate the impact of natural disasters.  We have already built or rebuilt 550 cyclone shelters and are now building another 130 of them; each one protects about 1800 people in a cyclone or flood.  The next frontier is helping Bangladesh prepare for an earthquake.

The Politic: The U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh is famous for the 1971 Blood Telegram. Have Bangladeshis forgiven the U.S. for supporting Pakistan during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War?

The relationship between the United States and Bangladesh is stronger than ever, as evidenced by our very successful Partnership Dialogue that concluded in May this year. We have a very robust partnership and enjoy popular support of our many programs in Bangladesh. Whether through humanitarian assistance or people-to-people exchanges, the United States is firmly committed to engagement with Bangladesh. America is viewed favorably or very favorably by over two-thirds of Bangladeshis, according to polls.

The Politic: Bangladesh has the fourth largest Muslim population in the world, and the country is sometimes noted as an exemplar in the practice of moderate Islam. Could you give us a sense of how the people of the country have reacted to key international events such as the Arab Spring, the Spring 2012 mismanagement of the Korans by the American military in Afghanistan, and the Fall 2012 anti-Islam video that emanated from California? 

Bangladesh is a moderate, secular, tolerant Muslim-majority democracy. Bangladeshis are deeply religious and, as might be expected, do not take well to insults against their religion. That said, Bangladeshis are a sophisticated people and do not allow the insensitive actions of a few to tarnish their view of and respect for America as a whole.

The Politic: In the wake of the recent garment factory tragedy in Bangladesh, many of the companies running such factories were revealed to be American, such as Walmart and GAP. How has the disaster affected Bangladeshis’ perception of the United States? Have American economic interests been injured because of this tragedy?

The United States believes that these horrible tragedies have a silver lining, i.e., creating an opportunity for Bangladesh to take action to improve labor and safety standards. America’s economic interests are best served by a prosperous Bangladesh, which is possible only when workers have the rights to freely associate and organize and to work in safe conditions. My mission and I are dedicated to advancing such a Bangladesh.

The Politic: The U.S. continues to offer millions of dollars of aid to Bangladesh. While aiding international development no doubt seems benevolent, the poverty-struck, homeless, and jobless man in the U.S. wonders why his government is keen on disbursing money abroad when there are serious fiscal challenges at home. What would you say to this man?

America’s interests are best advanced by promoting a Bangladesh which is peaceful, secure, prosperous, healthy and democratic because such a Bangladesh is in the interests of America, in the interests of the region, and, most especially, in the interests of the people of Bangladesh. A failed Bangladesh would be costly in humanitarian and financial terms to America, the region and the people of Bangladesh; avoiding a failed Bangladesh is in America’s interests.

The Politic: One of the reasons the United States is an attraction for young people all over the world is its colleges and universities. Do many Bangladeshi students study in the United States? Do many American college students tend to undertake study abroad or service projects in Bangladesh?

Last academic year, Bangladesh had the highest growth rate of any country in South and Central Asia in terms of the number of students studying in the U.S. I am pleased with this positive trend, but want the number of Bangladeshi students to increase tenfold. I would like to see more Bangladeshi students studying in the United States because of the benefit to American universities which host Bangladeshi students and the significant returns on investment that Bangladesh receives when its students return home to put into practice everything they learned in the United States. I also welcome greater numbers of American college students studying in Bangladesh. I am always pleased to see passionate Fulbright students come to Bangladesh each year to undertake research programs or teach while living and working side-by-side with their Bangladeshi counterparts. I applaud those American students who come to Bangladesh for service projects, learning from and contributing to some of the best development projects in the world.

The Politic: For many of us, there is often an experience, a person, or some event in our home countries that greatly influences what we do and how we do it. Would you say there has been an experience, person, or event in the United States that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies?

 I could write a book in response to this question. Growing up on a small family dairy farm in Iowa has made me keenly sensitive to agricultural and food security issues, thus explaining my determined support of President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative in Bangladesh. My living in Nepal sensitized me to the threat of earthquakes, which was magnified by the devastating earthquake in Haiti. These sensitivities have energized me to set as my highest internal objective the shifting all American staff to housing that meets international seismic standards. My many years of service in southern Africa sensitized me to the horrors of HIV/AIDS so I have worked hard to ensure that HIV/AIDS doesn’t take deeper root in Bangladesh.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

I feel that America is well represented abroad by both the men and women who make up the Foreign Service and those from the military and other agencies who serve abroad.   U.S. foreign policy is created in Washington through the interagency process and in collaboration with Congress, civil society, and the general public. My mission provides information to inform the decision-making process. And, of course, the mission is at the front lines for implementing these policies.

The Politic: We hear that Cox’s Bazar, the 125-kilometer beach, is where it’s at. Do you have a favorite tourist spot in Bangladesh?

Cox’s Bazar features the world’s longest unbroken beach, but the most magical place in Bangladesh is the Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and home to the dangerous but ever elusive Royal Bengal tiger. It is a must-see as there is nothing like it anywhere in the world.

 

Embassy of the United States to Bangladesh: http://dhaka.usembassy.gov/index.html

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Abhimanyu Chandra

Abhimanyu Chandra is a staff writer for The Politic from Laurel, Mississippi. Contact him at abhimanyu.chandra@yale.edu.

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