Editor’s note: on January 23, 2023, President Joe Biden nominated Rackham alum David J. Kostelancik to be the next Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Republic of Albania. Kostelancik is currently the Ambassador-Nominee until Senate confirmation.
While averting geopolitical crises and safeguarding national interests abroad can sound like the action-packed plotline to a blockbuster movie, the truth lies in a much quieter strength: respect and deep listening. Few know this better than Rackham alumnus and U.S. diplomat David Kostelancik (M.A. 1988).
“It’s always important to understand that the person you’re sitting across from is a person too,” Kostelancik says. “Understanding the person and their perspectives will help you see if there’s some room for compromise and will help you argue your own interests, values, and objectives.”
“It’s always important to understand that the person you’re sitting across from is a person too.”
With over 30 years of experience as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Albania, Turkey, Russia, and Hungary, Kostelancik most recently served in the Pentagon as foreign policy advisor to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley.
In this role, Kostelancik served as a liaison to senior leadership in the U.S. Department of State and provided vital context and informed perspectives to General Milley.
“We were devoting roughly 75 percent of our time to Russia and Ukraine. The connection between national security agencies, professionals in the U.S. government, and civilian professionals in the State Department is very important to our ongoing efforts,” Kostelancik says.
Before he was a seasoned diplomat, Kostelancik was a history-loving boy growing up near Pilsen, a vibrant neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. Named for Plzeň, a city in the Czech Republic, Pilsen was bustling with the business, languages, and cultures of the Czech and Slovak immigrants who settled there.
Now, Pilsen is home to a large Latinx community, but when Kostelancik was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Slovak was the language of his church’s sermons, Czech was a language offered at his local high school, and the corner newsstand sold two newspapers: the Chicago Tribune, and the Denni Hlasatel.
“There was a large Czech and Slovak community in Chicago, and that really shaped my identity.”
“All four of my grandparents came from Czechoslovakia, immigrants to the States at different points between World War I and the early 1930s,” Kostelancik says. “There was a large Czech and Slovak community in Chicago, and that really shaped my identity.”
Curiosity to Career Path
As a first-generation college student at Northwestern University, Kostelancik double majored in mathematics and political science while enjoying four years of Russian language.
While earning his undergraduate degree, Kostelancik was captivated by the memoirs of Russian scholar and foreign service officer George Kennan, known for his lectures and writings on the containment of Soviet expansion during the Cold War.
“I had not known about the existence of the Foreign Service before then. I just thought, ‘That sounds fairly interesting. Let me see what I can find out about it.’”
After writing a letter to the State Department, Kostelancik received information in the mail about careers in the Foreign Service and how to get started with a written test, offered once annually, followed by an oral exam for those who passed.
While his interest was piqued, Kostelancik had his immediate sights set on graduate school, specifically at U-M. After his first year at Michigan, Kostelancik took two steps that ended up launching his career: He sat for the Foreign Service exam, which he passed, and he applied to and was selected for a summer internship at the State Department in Washington, D.C.
“I had no idea what I was getting into, absolutely none,” he says. “And almost nobody from Michigan was doing anything like that at the time, but off I went.”
During his summer internship at the State Department, Kostelancik met people eager to help him get ready for the Foreign Service oral exam.
“I had Foreign Service supervisors and colleagues say, ‘This is what you should be doing to prepare,’ which was great.”
It wasn’t until Kostelancik got back to Ann Arbor and started the fall semester of his second year that he found out that he passed the oral exam.
“You either get a thin letter in the mail which says ‘sorry,’ or you get a thick packet saying, ‘If you’re really interested in the Foreign Service, start filling out all of these forms to continue the process.’ I got a thick packet.”
After earning his master’s degree from the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies program and finishing his doctoral candidacy exams, Kostelancik joined the Foreign Service. He intended to come back to Ann Arbor eventually to finish his Ph.D., but as his advisors predicted, he fell in love with his career and never looked back.
“I decided, ‘Wow, I really enjoy this,’ and I wanted to stay,” Kostelancik says. “It’s a very rewarding career.”
Kostelancik has maintained a close relationship with U-M, with visits to the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and the Ford School for Public Policy, where he recently taught a virtual mini-course on energy in Central Europe. He also serves as a member of the Rackham Career Pathways Council, offering help and expertise.
“It’s just been a great relationship over the many years, and I’m grateful for it,” Kostelancik says of U-M.
A Life Abroad
While many diplomats enjoy postings that span the globe, Kostelancik’s rare specialization in the regional dynamics of Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Russia has led him to impactful work in those areas.
In the late 1990s, Kostelancik was tapped to serve the U.S. Mission to NATO, just as NATO was about to enter into conflict with Serbia over Kosovo.
Shortly before September 11, 2001, Kostelancik’s posting to the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) became a national priority when, right after 9/11, President George W. Bush took his first phone call from a foreign leader, Vladimir Putin.
“Putin essentially said, ‘We are with you, with the United States, in solidarity. How can we work together?’ and the two landed on OSCE,” Kostelancik says.
“Really hard to believe today, 180 degrees in the opposite direction of where we are with Russia at the OSCE these days, but the early 2000s were a very fruitful time in relations between the U.S. and Russia,” Kostelancik says.
While serving as the deputy minister counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 2009, Kostelancik coordinated President Barack Obama’s visit to the city.
“As Foreign Service officers, we believe there are universal values of freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.”
“As Foreign Service officers, we believe there are universal values of freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. Regardless of any particular administration, those bedrocks of American foreign policy are really important. I have done my very best overseas to emphasize that continuity,” Kostelancik says.
Family Life Abroad
Kostelancik met his wife Trish, who was working in the U.S. Civil Service at the time, in Ankara, Turkey. The two married and welcomed three sons into their family: Tim, Dan, and Ben.
“We navigated the Foreign Service as what is called a ‘tandem couple,’ where both partners are members of the Foreign Service,” Kostelancik says.
While Trish took some time off when their sons were young, she rejoined the Civil Service, working remotely from her husband’s postings. The family enjoyed time in Moscow, Brussels, Belgium, Vienna, and Budapest.
“It’s easier these days than it was years ago when we were trying to do it because the Foreign Service understands that people will meet each other and they’ll want to make a life together,” Kostelancik says. “But I think our sons really enjoyed life overseas. It was a little difficult to move every few years, but they really enjoyed it. They love international travel now. They speak several languages.”
Advice for the Next Generation
Kostelancik encourages any graduate student interested in the Foreign Service to give it a try when they’re young and when it is easier to be available for worldwide service for the requisite four to five years.
“Say to yourself, ‘hey, I’m going to travel and see the world and gain some experience,” Kostelancik says. “If circumstances in your personal life change later down the road, you can take your Foreign Service experience out into the world and do something else with it. But if you’re interested, give it a try.”
How Rackham Helps
Reflecting on his time at U-M, Kostelancik is grateful for his tuition assistance and with a grant that he received to cover housing costs during his internship with the State Department in Washington, D.C.
“Michigan provided for me when I didn’t have much and enabled me to go do the internship,” Kostelancik says. “One thing led to another and here I am.”