Negotiator Wendy Sherman leaves her poker face at home, even as she tries to keep Putin out of Ukraine

Wendy ShermanImage Chip Somodevilla / Getty

A few years ago, Wendy Sherman, the US Deputy Secretary of State who is currently in Geneva to prevent a war between Russia and Ukraine, explained why she is known worldwide as one of the best negotiators of her time.

It was 2015, and after 25 days of negotiations in the Palais Coburg, a five-star hotel in Vienna, Sherman, as chief negotiator on behalf of the United States, had one last item on the agenda: a final meeting with Abbas Araghchi, the chief negotiator on behalf of Iran.

For weeks, the two, along with dozens of other diplomats from Brussels, England, France, Germany, Russia and China, had been busy shaping the so-called Iran deal, an attempt to freeze that country’s nuclear ambitions. This final conversation was the last hurdle.

Sherman had only dined out of the hotel once in four weeks, as each new word in the deal had to be coordinated with all the individual country teams in different meeting rooms, hallways, or breakfast tables of the hotel. “It was like a Rubik’s cube,” Sherman later said of those weeks in Vienna. “If you solved one side, it turned out that you had completely mixed up the other side.”

Yet after 25 days there was an agreement that could be presented to the world. At least, until her Iranian colleague Araghchi suddenly leaned forward during that last conversation and brought things up for discussion days earlier.

Silver Fox

Sherman knew it was tactics—an ultimate attempt to get something extra out of it—yet “I lost control,” she later recalled that moment. “I started talking and to my frustration and anger I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I said this tactic jeopardized the whole deal.”

Sherman: They teach women from a young age that seeing you cry is a sign of weakness, but Araghchi and Ravanchi (his co-negotiator, red.) were stunned. For the first time in a month, they kept their mouth shut. After a long moment of silence, Araghchi rejected his earlier objection and agreed to the deal.’

Not that she’s ever had tears in her eyes during negotiations since then. It was not a tactical move. It was sincerity. “If you bring authenticity, perseverance and commitment to the negotiating table, you are incredibly powerful,” the 72-year-old Sherman later summed up.

So what do you do in 2022 when Vladimir Putin maneuvers more than a hundred thousand troops to the border with Ukraine and the whole world fears an imminent war? Then you send the Silver Fox to the Russians, a nickname Sherman got from those same conversations with the Iranians after they found out how clever their female counterpart really was. Smart as a fox.

Not up to standard

Sherman’s methods may deviate somewhat from international norms, perhaps because she learned her diplomatic skills in a different class than most of her mostly male colleagues. After college in Baltimore, she worked for years with children in need of foster care. However, realizing the effort it took to provide abused children with the help they actually needed, she decided to change the system by entering politics.

It was an extremely successful career that soon took her to the prestigious Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There, under President Bill Clinton, she was already the driving force behind the successful negotiations with North Korean President Kim Jong-il. Later she negotiated with the Chinese, the Russians, the Syrians, the Iranians – all conversations that made her tough, according to almost all her colleagues in interviews. Sherman is known for not getting around the hot mess and never being walked all over. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” she told the Senate in 2013.

Also important: it is better to put your cards on the table than to put on a poker face. “Not because these are relationships that revolve around trust,” she said in an interview with last year The New York Times. ‘But they are relationships that revolve around respect. And you can best earn each other’s respect if you know each other’s interests, and then try to represent both interests as best you can.’

That’s why she started her talks with the Russians on Monday with the aim of “understanding each other’s priorities better,” she said afterwards. Or in the words of her Russian colleague Sergei Ryabkov, who remembers Sherman from the time they negotiated the dismantling of the Syrian arsenal: ‘The talks were difficult, long, very professional, deep, concrete and without trying to cut the sharp edges. avoid.’

Three colleagues about Wendy Sherman

Among her direct colleagues, Sherman, the master of difficult conversations, evokes not only a lot of respect, but also a little bit of fear. “It can be very intense,” diplomat James Jeffrey told the BBC recently.

Former colleague Rose Gottemoeller described her opposite The New York Times as follows: ‘She is an accomplished professional with a somewhat sharp edge. You knew you had to be well prepared before talking to her or you’d see the door again pretty soon.’

“She develops close ties with her interlocutors,” said EU diplomat Catherine Ashton. For example, during one of her trips to Pyongyang, the then North Korean president Kim Jong-il admitted Sherman that he was a big fan of American films. He owned every Oscar-winning film and had seen them all. His favorite films, he assured Sherman: the one with James Bond.