October 27, 2022

Around the Table with Natalia Cote Muñoz

Three Questions with the Make Room Email Newsletter

By Natalia Cote Muñoz

Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.

Natalia Cote Muñoz is a special assistant for policy at the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Policy Planning, and an incoming senior advisor to the department’s new Subnational Diplomacy office, where she will cover China, climate change, and the Cities Summit of the Americas. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of State.

You have lived in Beijing, as well as throughout the Americas. How have you been able to apply this experience living in different places to your career at the State Department?

The relationship goes both ways—growing up across several countries and then living abroad as an adult made me passionate about foreign policy in the first place. I've always felt like these experiences were an immense privilege and I had to channel them in the form of service. The State Department is an excellent place to do that, and in my role, I get to apply the insights I gained living in different countries to my job every day.

Having lived abroad helped me develop a muscle that not only makes me more empathetic but forces me to consistently challenge my own perspective. I try to avoid being reactive and not take things at face value. For every issue I work on, I ask myself: How does this look from another point of view? How will this be received by different stakeholders? How do these initiatives complement or challenge other countries' interests or even our own interests? What are my blind spots? What will these policies look like when implemented? Who will they affect and how?

How has your experience serving in government been different or similar to your time working at think tanks?

I work, broadly speaking, on similar issues and I still write a lot, but otherwise the experiences are quite different. At a think tank you prioritize developing individuals' ideas—honing what one person believes and supporting these ideas and/or the person to become a thought leader. Individuals are known for the specific arguments they put out. You also have much more time to research and think deeply about issues. However, you are never sure to what extent your writing will influence policy. It can feel like you're putting things out into the ether. There's also a lot of pressure to constantly publish or do interviews to stay relevant, which can make becoming a public intellectual feel like several jobs at once.

In government, your job is to push forward the agenda of your office, so your ideas and contributions are constrained by that framework. But every single contribution you make matters, and you can see concrete results. There's also more of a sense that you are working toward a greater good rather than focusing on putting yourself out there—it frees up space after work that at a think tank I'd spend thinking about what to tweet or what hot take I would make in an op-ed. Both overall are intellectually and personally stimulating experiences for different reasons and complement each other—if I were to return to the world of think tanks, I have more of an insight into what the incentives and constraints are within government, so I'm more likely to give better recommendations. And having been in the think tank world brings a different perspective to my work in government.

What advice do you have for people early in their careers?

There is no one path to work in policy and be skeptical of anyone who hints at that. This is especially important to internalize if you are part of a group that is underrepresented in this world. We have few people to look up to and often don't have the same experiences as people who most commonly end up in this field, which may make entering feel intimidating and isolating. Instead, focus on developing what is different about you because that will be your strength and your added value anywhere you go. What makes you different is what others lack, and those gaps in perspective hinder our policies. Talk to a lot of different people to understand the different options that exist and see what may or may not work for you, and always thank people for their time in helping you learn. Try different things and learn what you like and don't like. Don't be afraid of failure—you will learn and grow more from your mistakes than from things that come easily to you. And most importantly, create and nurture your community. If you come from an underrepresented group, you often don't have as many connections in policy, so support each other, grow together, and pay it forward. There is no such thing as making it on your own.

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