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.
Sarah Bufano is a senior national security consultant at Guidehouse and a master's student at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of Guidehouse or SAIS.
How has your experience working and traveling internationally contributed to your understanding of national security?
Living and working on four continents has shaped my understanding of how the United States can effectively interact with other states in support of its national interests. Specifically, national security is the protection of a state’s national interests, which requires the state to both advance and defend those interests. Foremost, I learned how a state’s history and culture affect its decisions, which is harder to appreciate from outside the country. Second, I observed how other states perceive the United States. Living overseas demonstrated America’s far-reaching influence—from the American Revolution inspiring other colonial revolutions to resentment against historical domestic interference. It has been humbling to witness how American culture and actions have rippled around the world. Lastly, it has illuminated the difference between a state’s external and internal image. On the global stage, a state may appear stable, however, on-the-ground there may be competing influences that significantly impact political decisions. This on-the-ground understanding provides richer insight into a state’s security and foreign policy. My experience helped me understand the factors that influence government action and therefore affect how states respond to U.S. policies. This has implications for how the United States can effectively protect its national interests.
What do you wish you knew when you were at the beginning of your career?
I wish I knew two things: career paths are not linear, and calculated risks, or “leaps of faith” as I call them, help you grow. At the start of my career, I viewed a career path as a ladder—one would keep working their way up and the next rung would always present itself. I have learned that career paths are not ladders, but zig zags. Zig zags provide more flexibility and let one explore different interests, which can lead to a more rewarding career. My zig zag career has allowed me to hone my skills across a variety of sectors, countries, and environments while gaining a multifaceted understanding of national security. In a similar vein, “leaps of faith” have marked pivotal moments in my career’s zig zag. A leap of faith is any time you get out of your comfort zone; trying something new forces you to grow personally and professionally. By being open to different career opportunities (the zig zag) and trying new things (“leaps of faith”), you can build a unique set of skills and experiences that allow you to provide a different perspective in your area of expertise.
What have your experiences in the private, nonprofit, and public sectors taught you?
My experience has provided me with a framework for differentiating across the three sectors based on audience and impact. The public sector has the largest audience—its citizens, residents, businesses—and therefore the greatest potential impact. Yet, it takes longest for the impact to materialize due to the standardized processes and complexity of implementation. Comparatively, nonprofits tend to have an issue-based audience (e.g., child education, homelessness, access to health care), which allows them to be more targeted in their efforts. It could take a long time to witness the impact, but it may be quicker than in the public sector. Lastly, the private sector’s audience is its customers and shareholders, which is the smallest audience. The private sector has more control over its actions and processes, resulting in a faster impact. This framework is a general guideline for comparing the three sectors and may not apply to every organization, but overall it has helped me understand each sector’s contribution and the role I play.
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