Wendy Sherman, the top diplomat dispatched by President Biden to Europe to help ward off a Russian invasion of Ukraine, was speaking on behalf of the United States to close out an extraordinary NATO session when members of the Russian delegation began passing notes and whispering among themselves.
Sherman, the No. 2 State Department official, abruptly stopped her remarks and “very crisply asked the Russians for their full attention,” according to a source familiar with the closed-door meeting.
“That’s the kind of thing that would come as no surprise for those who know Wendy,” the source added. “She is someone who can convey a powerful message and knows how to convey a powerful message.”
Sherman, 72, has been a fixture in foreign policy for Democratic administrations across several decades, earning a reputation as a shrewd and determined negotiator.
“She is very focused. She is tough. She is hard-nosed. She won’t let the Russians get away with any baloney,” said Evelyn Farkas, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia and worked alongside Sherman in various capacities.
Sherman was an important figure in policy toward North Korea during the Clinton administration and led nuclear negotiations with Iran during the Obama years. She was confirmed as the deputy secretary of State under longtime Biden adviser Antony Blinken last year and is the first woman to hold the role.
“Certainly, the Russians, the North Koreans and the Iranians wouldn’t expect this from a woman, but she can go head-to-head with them and doesn’t show weakness and doesn’t show fear and doesn’t try to mollify her negotiating counterpart,” Farkas said.
To be sure, Sherman’s role in securing the controversial 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the role she played in the ultimately failed nuclear talks with North Korea during the Clinton years, have won her some critics among Republicans.
The Clinton administration struck an initial deal with North Korea in 1994 that eventually collapsed under the Bush administration when Pyongyang admitted to running a covert uranium enrichment program. Sherman was not the chief negotiator on the agreement but served as policy coordinator on North Korea during the Clinton years. Former Secretary of State James Baker III accused the Clinton team of pursuing a failed “policy of appeasement” toward North Korea in 1999.
“The objective of having an agreement became more important than the content of the agreement and whether or not the agreement served America’s interests,” argued a former Republican foreign policy official who requested anonymity to speak candidly about both instances.
The former official described Sherman as shrewd, intelligent and effective but also “extraordinarily partisan and quite calculating.”
Sherman, who grew up in Baltimore, began her career as a social worker rooted in community organizing.
“As a social worker, I got a core set of skills in community organizing and how to work with groups. I got clinical skills, which I joke all the time have been very useful with dictators and members of Congress,” she said in an interview with Foreign Policy in 2018.
Sherman’s bona fides in Washington range from lead congressional staff in the House and Senate to executive director of key political organizations, including EMILY’s List — an abortion rights group that supports female political candidates — and as executive director the Democratic National Committee.
She served as assistant secretary of State for legislative affairs in the Clinton administration and then was promoted to counselor, with the rank of ambassador, to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Sherman has described Albright as one of her most important role models who helped her understand her power within the federal government.
“Madeleine told me that the trick is not to simply wield your personal power, but to own the power of your office,” Sherman wrote in a piece for Politico reflecting on women’s roles in leadership.
“Who, after all, can truly measure up to the outsize might of the United States? ‘When you sit across the negotiating table,’ Madeleine told me, ‘you are the United States of America, not Wendy. If you know that and use that, it matters more than the fact that you’re a woman.’ Madeleine showed me that owning that power was quite something,” she added.
That confidence seemed to be on full display in Brussels this past week when Sherman sat among 30 nations, including the all-male Russian delegation.
“She didn’t blink. She didn’t back down on any of the principles,” said William Taylor, vice president of Russia and Ukraine at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former ambassador to Ukraine, of Sherman’s engagements in Europe.
The deputy secretary led the U.S. delegation in a bilateral meeting with Russian officials in Geneva on Jan. 10 in what is called the Strategic Stability Dialogue where she presented — for the first time face to face — the American rejection of Russia’s demand to cease NATO expansion.
She reiterated that rejection at the NATO-Russia meeting and stressed complete unity among the alliance’s 30 member nations.
Taylor, who worked with Sherman at the State Department during the Clinton administration, described her as “then, just like now, very competent, very tough, very self-confident and very effective.”
The results of Sherman’s trip have not fully played out. The U.S. is now in a wait-and-see mode, preparing to respond harshly with sanctions and military reinforcements to NATO’s eastern flank should Russia invade Ukraine or meet again at the negotiating table if Russia chooses to pull back troops from the border.
“There is plenty to work on where we have places where we can enhance mutual security. There are some places we cannot. But there is progress that can be made,” Sherman said in a press briefing at the conclusion of the NATO-Russia meeting. “And everyone — Russia most of all — will have to decide whether they really are about security, in which case they should engage, or whether this was all a pretext. And they may not even know yet.”
Sherman was confirmed last spring with the help of six Republican senators who voted with Democrats, but most Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opposed her nomination over her involvement in the Iran nuclear talks.
Republicans and a handful of Democrats opposed the JCPOA, arguing that it did not adequately constrain Iran’s nuclear program. Former President Trump withdrew from the six-party agreement with Iran in 2018.
During a March committee meeting, Sen. James Risch (Idaho), the committee’s top Republican, accused Sherman of exhibiting “a lack of appreciation for the role of Congress in foreign policy making” and voiced concerns about Biden’s desire to return to the Iran agreement.
“I think that we’re going to see the same movie that we’ve seen before, and I have real reservations about that,” Risch warned at the time.
Still, Sherman is widely recognized for her cunning and sharpness, even by those on the other side of the political aisle.
“From 50,000 feet, she is very qualified, she knows what she’s doing, she’s going to carry out a policy extremely well,” said Lester Munson, who served as the Republican staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Obama years. “I wish she were on our side and helping carry out a better policy.”
Even Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in an interview assessing the week of diplomatic meetings in Europe, seemed to acknowledge Sherman’s ability to deliver tough talking points in a way that advances conversation.
“The West laid out its tough, sometimes arrogant, unyielding and uncompromising position in a generally calm tone, in a businesslike manner,” he said in an interview with a Russian political talk show on Thursday. “This gives us hope that there will be time to digest the talks held in Washington.”
This article was updated at 7:10 p.m. to clarify Wendy Sherman’s role in the Clinton administration.