Wendy Sherman, No 2 at US State Department: tough negotiator, smooth diplomat

Jacob Fromer
·10-min read

Last week, just days after the Biden administration placed China atop its list of global threats, the US Senate confirmed Wendy Sherman, a long-time diplomat who has negotiated with US adversaries like Iran and North Korea, as the No 2 official in the State Department.

Sherman, 71, is not generally recognised as a China specialist, and her path to confirmation as deputy secretary of state had to pass through widespread Republican opposition – she was approved in a 56-42 vote – in part because of her role as lead US negotiator on the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, but also due to doubts about her toughness towards Beijing.

Sherman “has a history of being weak on Communist China and has worked to normalise trade with one of our greatest adversaries”, a spokesperson for Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican who voted against her confirmation, told the South China Morning Post.

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The State Department declined to make Sherman available for an interview, but former officials say the administration likely considers essential her years of work as a battle-tested negotiator at the highest diplomatic levels.

Described by many observers as one of the most experienced and qualified diplomats to hold a senior foreign policy post in the new administration, Sherman returns to the building where she has worked on and off since the 1990s – in a new moment of growing geopolitical tensions, but with many of the same challenges.

Iran is again threatening to build nuclear weapons. North Korea, where Sherman travelled on a diplomatic mission in 2000, is again launching missiles.

Yet at least one big change stands out since Sherman left the government six years ago: China is now more assertive and powerful than it has been in decades.

As she told senators at her confirmation hearing last month, “2021 is not 2015”.

Throughout President Donald Trump’s term, Sherman was a vocal critic of how he dealt with Beijing.

Sherman criticised President Donald Trump, shown in 2018, for lacking a China policy: “For the president, everything is a commercial transaction,” she told MSNBC. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/TNS
Sherman criticised President Donald Trump, shown in 2018, for lacking a China policy: “For the president, everything is a commercial transaction,” she told MSNBC. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/TNS

“There is no China policy. There is no China strategy. There’s a trade strategy,” she told MSNBC in 2019, at the height of the protest movement in Hong Kong.

“For the president, everything is a commercial transaction. It has nothing to do with empathy. It has nothing to do with people. It has nothing to do with human rights, dignity, democracy, freedom.”

Last May, she criticised Trump’s decision to declare Hong Kong no longer autonomous from China – a decision recently reaffirmed by Biden’s team – saying it was just what Beijing wanted.

“The new Chinese security law is terrible but @realDonaldTrump is going to hurt the people of Hong Kong, American business in HK,” she wrote on Twitter. “Let’s sanction China but not capitulate to what China has done.”

As a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Sherman signed a letter last year condemning China’s “initial cover-up” and “continuing lack of transparency” concerning Covid-19. The letter also called for more cooperation between Washington and Beijing to fight the virus.

At her confirmation hearing last month, she agreed with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s assessment that Beijing’s treatment of Uygurs in the northwestern Xinjiang region amounts to genocide.

“We should not shy away from saying things as they truly are,” she said.

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Sherman is best known in Washington as the lead US negotiator on the high-stakes 2015 nuclear agreement over Iran’s nuclear weapons programme – a huge but controversial diplomatic achievement, which former President Trump effectively tore to shreds in 2018.

Critics of the deal said it amounted to appeasement – an agreement that eased sanctions on Tehran while providing only a limited window to pause production of nuclear material.

Supporters said it stopped Iran’s nuclear programme in its tracks as it was speeding towards a weapon, and gave the US vital intelligence it otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Progress made on nuclear talks with US, Iranian officials say

The Biden administration has said it wants to restore the deal, but the two sides have not yet agreed on what exactly a renewed pact would look like.

Beyond Iran, while Sherman is not a sinologist, she is still familiar with the tense geopolitics in East Asia.

In 2015, Sherman, then the State Department’s third-ranking official, unexpectedly infuriated the South Korean government in a speech marking 70 years since the end of World War II.

Her speech included comments that were widely viewed in Seoul as telling the country to stop dwelling on its traumatic years under brutal Japanese occupation.

Wendy Sherman, then the under secretary of state for political affairs, with then-Secretary of State John Kerry, right, thanking members of the US negotiating team on July 14, 2015, after the Iranian nuclear agreement was announced. Photo: US State Department
Wendy Sherman, then the under secretary of state for political affairs, with then-Secretary of State John Kerry, right, thanking members of the US negotiating team on July 14, 2015, after the Iranian nuclear agreement was announced. Photo: US State Department

“There are disagreements about the content of history books and even the names given to various bodies of water. All this is understandable, but it can also be frustrating,” she said, later adding: “It’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy.”

Sherman’s remarks were regarded as deeply offensive, especially while Seoul’s tensions with Tokyo were already soaring over that very issue. Korean politicians condemned the comments and wondered aloud about the status of the relationship with Washington.

The State Department tried to walk back Sherman’s statements, saying it was “a little surprised” at how they had been interpreted.

Japan, South Korea take different approaches to China relations

Through it all, despite the uproar, Sherman tried to stay close with Seoul’s envoy in Washington.

“She had a good personal relationship with the Korean ambassador in town, Ahn Ho-young, and I think did her part to send the right signals and reassurance,” said one former State Department official familiar with the events. “This points to her strong ability to maintain personal diplomatic relationships.”

“But obviously the Korean public is a whole different thing, and it basically became a period of peak tension.”

Sherman’s outspokenness and her finely tuned antenna for personal diplomacy may both be put to use in her new role, as the icy US-China relationship shows no signs of thawing any time soon – though observers say it remains to be seen how exactly Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken may decide to wield her in their dealings with Chinese leadership.

Washington and Beijing continue to feud over trade policy, human rights in Xinjiang, democracy in Hong Kong, and territorial claims along China’s periphery.

US-China relationship ‘arguably’ Washington’s most important, Blinken says

The Biden administration recently put China at the top of an annual list, assembled by the US intelligence community, of global threats. And President Biden has framed US domestic political issues as a chance to show that American democracy can out-compete China’s top-down, authoritarian system.

Sherman has rare experience dealing directly with high-ranking officials from both Iran and North Korea.

She has already dealt with Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, during the Iran nuclear negotiations, and she briefly served as acting deputy secretary of state before Antony Blinken took on the role during the Obama administration.

Wendy Sherman, then the under secretary of state for political affairs, is seen meeting Chinese vice-foreign minister Zhai Jun in August 2012. Photo: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Wendy Sherman, then the under secretary of state for political affairs, is seen meeting Chinese vice-foreign minister Zhai Jun in August 2012. Photo: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

“I can’t really overstate how important it is inside the situation room, when one is trying to make US foreign and national security policy, to have experienced people – and the deputy secretary really is often the principal voice on US foreign policy,” said John Bellinger, former legal adviser to the State Department and National Security Council (NSC) during the George W. Bush administration.

“To have somebody with this amount of experience inside the State Department, this amount of experience in national security decision-making, this level of experience and contacts both doing negotiations and contacts in other principal countries, she will be one of the most experienced deputy secretaries who we’ve had,” said Bellinger, now head of the global law and public policy practice at the Arnold & Porter law firm.

Sherman, a Maryland native, has spent decades in politics and diplomacy. She ran the winning campaign for the powerful former Democratic senator Barbara Mikulski’s first term in 1986, and served as her chief of staff in the House of Representatives before that.

“When women ask me how I got to do the things I have done, they are often surprised to hear that I had no five-year plan for my life,” Sherman wrote in her 2018 memoir, Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence.

“To tell the truth, my best guide was a core set of skills from a master’s in social work in community organising that I had put to work at each turn in my life.”

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, shown with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000, travelled to Pyongyang with Sherman and would go on to co-found a consulting company with her. Photo: AP
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, shown with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000, travelled to Pyongyang with Sherman and would go on to co-found a consulting company with her. Photo: AP

In the Clinton administration, Sherman was counsellor to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a North Korea adviser to the president. She and Albright would go on to co-found a consulting company that became the Albright Stonebridge Group.

Albright, the first woman US secretary of state, has called Sherman “one of America’s smartest and most dedicated diplomats”.

Ambassador Charles Pritchard, a former North Korea adviser to presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who worked with Sherman, said she “had, in my opinion, an amazing ability to bring people together that while still on the same team, had a different point of view”.

The Pentagon, for example, was focused on the alliance with Japan, and channelled Tokyo’s concerns about North Korea’s missile programme during meetings, Pritchard recounted.

A suspected missile is fired in this image released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency on March 22, 2020. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
A suspected missile is fired in this image released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency on March 22, 2020. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

“Different agencies came to the table with different points of view, and I believe I was a student at her diplomatic table, watching her take into consideration those interests of different agencies and weave them together in a way that really produced a team effort,” he said.

The State Department describes the deputy role as the secretary of state’s “alter ego” – the top adviser, ready to step into the job at any time.

“It’s a behemoth department to run,” Bellinger, the former Bush administration official, said.

“The fact that she has so much experience will really help, particularly after the State Department was really hollowed out during the Trump administration [and] lost so many good people,” he said.

Sherman’s immediate predecessor as deputy secretary, Stephen Biegun, served in an unusual second role at the end of the Trump administration, as special representative for North Korea.

It is unclear whether Sherman will have that responsibility – but if she does, it will not be her first time dealing directly with Pyongyang.

In 2000, at the tail end of the Clinton administration, Sherman accompanied Albright there to meet with Kim Jong-il, the father of the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Among other events, in a giant stadium packed with 150,000 people, Kim Jong-il sat between Sherman and Albright, according to a declassified diplomatic cable.

At one point in the show, performers with coloured cards formed the image of a launching missile. Kim turned to Albright, and then to Sherman: what was being portrayed would be “the first and last” North Korean satellite launch, he told them.

That did not turn out to be true – just one of the lingering geopolitical challenges Sherman and the Biden State Department must now confront.

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