In Wendy Sherman, the Biden administration has sent its most experienced negotiator into the fray, in an attempt to fend off a Russian invasion of Ukraine and a new conflict in Europe.
No one in government has spent more time in high-stakes talks with hostile states than the 72-year-old deputy secretary of state, who has represented the US at two rounds of critical discussions with Russia this week.
She was part of an extraordinary mission 23 years ago, led by the former defence secretary William Perry, to try to do a deal with North Korea.
For many North Koreans, it was the first time they had seen an American, and the regime went all-out to put on a show of a joyfully contented country. At one point, a bus stopped in front of the delegation, seemingly by chance, and its passengers poured out and went straight into a dance routine.
“Everything was supposed to be ‘spontaneous’,” Sherman later told the Guardian. “And there was a cameraman following everything we did with a 1950s hand-cranked camera. It was all rather surreal.
“When we wanted to talk, we walked outside, even knowing there might be bugs in the trees. When we wanted to get a message across and were not sure who we should be talking to, we would sit in a waiting room and speak, knowing we were being listened to.”
Sherman did not set out to be a diplomat. She was an activist first, working as a social worker in Baltimore, trying to make affordable housing more available. After jobs as a staffer in Congress and the Democratic National Committee, she ran Emily’s List, an organisation committed to raising funds for pro-choice Democratic women’s candidates.
That background combined with her deep involvement in negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, have made her the subject of deep Republican suspicion. But her experience and cool demeanour won over enough Republicans to win Senate confirmation as deputy secretary of state, by 56 votes to 42.
While the former secretary of state John Kerry would fly in at critical moments of the Iranian talks, it was Sherman who led the day-to-day negotiations for the US – a feat of stamina as the discussions frequently went deep into the night.
Laura Rozen, who covered the Iran nuclear talks from beginning to end and who now writes the Diplomatic Substack newsletters, recalls a European diplomat observing that, while the Iranians got on better with Kerry, Sherman was seen as the more effective negotiator.
“What I think about a lot, watching Sherman doing high-stakes [nuclear] diplomacy with Iran and now with Russia, is her mantra, that the skills are transferrable,” Rozen said. “She trained as a social worker and came into foreign policy through Democratic party politics … and now, as a 72-year-old grandmother, Sherman is working with her former Russian counterpart in the Iran nuclear deal talks [Russian Deputy FM Sergey Ryabkov], to see if the US/transatlantic alliance and Russia can agree on diplomatic solutions to avert war and preserve European peace and security.”
The short silver hair and metal-rimmed glasses add to her reputation as a steely, no-nonsense negotiator, but her friend Douglas Rediker, an economist who was formerly the US representative on the executive board of the International Monetary Fund, insists that there is a softer side, that also enhances her skills as a negotiator.
“It’s trite but she is tough as nails, she is smart as a whip and she is also enormously human,” Rediker said. “There are some people who are extremely tough and experienced to the point where they are so cynical, that they lose the element of humanity.
“Wendy can act like and think like a person as well as someone simply espousing the mandate that she’s been given.”