5 Questions with Wendy Sherman

Wendy Sherman joins the IOP Fall Resident Fellows after serving as the lead US negotiator with Iran as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. We chatted with Wendy before her arrival about starting her career in social work, the future of politics, and what it’s like to sit across the table during Iran nuclear talk negotiations.

Watch Wendy's JFK Jr. Forum conversation on the Iran Nuclear Negotiations moderated by the New York Times' David Sanger live on October 6 at 6pm ET here.

What can students expect to learn in your study groups?

I hope that students get a sense of how tough the world’s challenges are from a U.S. perspective, and how, in fact, one can use diplomacy in negotiations to try to solve those problems. But at the same time, I hope they understand that negotiations take place in a political context – both our domestic politics and the world’s politics, and geopolitics at the largest frame for this – and that they understand the interaction that getting a negotiation to a positive conclusion is more than what you do at the negotiating table. 


Millennials are known for their social activism, but not necessarily their political engagement or action. What would you say to those that doubt the value of voting or political participation?

Social activism is absolutely critical, and I applaud those who are doing it. But to make lasting and real change, one can’t do it on a case-by-case or organization-by-organization basis. One has to vote-in people who are going to make those changes in a sustained and institutionalized way. I remember when I started out in my career, I was a social worker - and worked first on child welfare cases. I realized that if I if I really wanted there to be a change, and for there to be fewer children who were abused or homeless or in need of foster care….then I needed to work at a policy level. I have enormous respect and admiration for people who work on a case-by-case basis. But, I think that we have a responsibility, as well, to seek an institutionalized and sustained change for the things we care about the most.


Can you talk about a turning point moment that defined you as a person and emboldened your choice of career?

I think the thing that most comes to mind, for me, has to do with my parents. My father was in residential real estate. He listened to a rabbi give a really rousing lecture on the Civil Rights movement and the need for collective action. He went to see the rabbi afterwards and said, “What can I do? I’m in residential real estate.” The rabbi said, “What you can do is to advertise for open housing,” which had never been done in the city Baltimore before. And my father said, “Well, if I do that, I may lose my entire business.” And the rabbi, who was a terrific and great rabbi – who was helping to desegregate restaurants and establishments – said, “Well, you asked me what you can do, and I’ve told you.’ So my father and mother discussed this and they decided that they would do it – and my father began to advertise open housing standards. His company did indeed take a big economic hit. We had death threats made against us. My parents engaged my sister and I, and later my little brother, in Civil Rights marches. I began to understand what change was really about - that one had to take risks, take action – and one had to take action even if it was to your detriment because it was for the greater good.


What do you think the “Future of Politics” will look like?

At the end of the day, politics is about self-interest…and whether you can make happen what you want to get the result that you want. And whether, in fact, you can act on those self-interests in a way that creates governance of our country in a way that represents our values. That’s what politics is about. Because of the nature of change – and the 24/7 environment in which we live, and the challenges we face – and the conflict within our own country about modernity – which is a challenge that the entire world is facing, we are at a very polarized place in our politics. We have been here before, it’s never pretty. It’s very dysfunctional. But we have always found our way through it, and I believe we will find our way through it again. At an operational level, I think over time, how we exercise our politics will change. It won’t be Twitter, it won’t be Instagram – it will be something else that none of us can imagine now. People may not go into voting booths in the future in any way, shape or form. They may make their views known in much more direct ways. I think there may be changes that come, though for those of us who do go to the voting booth and don’t mail-in ballots: it is a singular American experience to go and cast your vote. It is one that we have helped the rest of the world understand and appreciate. But we have also helped them understand and appreciate that “an election does not a democracy make.” One has to build institutions, policies and governance that represent the values that we hold so dear. 


Can you describe what it felt like to be at the table leading negotiations during the Iran nuclear talks?

It was an extraordinary privilege, an honor. It was the most difficult thing I probably have ever done in my life. Incredibly complicated. The fact that I was a woman and Helga Schmid, the EU’s deputy and, really the center of these negotiations – two women often sitting opposite two Iranian men made this an even greater challenge, though I represented the United States, not myself. The fact that I was a Jewish-American woman, made it even a further challenge beyond that. Working with an extraordinary team of people – most of whose names will never be known, throughout our government, led by Secretary Kerry and joined by Secretary Moniz – two amazing individuals. Secretary Kerry: the most creative negotiator imaginable. Secretary Moniz: not only technically proficient but able to talk about it in ways people understand: not an easy task. And finally, the President of the United States who was unbelievably engaged in this negotiation. Clear, decisive – really led the way in what we did. The whole experience over, really, four years – the last two, the most intense – in a multi-lateral scenario with truly brutal politics in our own country – it was extraordinary, exhausting, amazing, and – I hope – ultimately as consequential as we think that it is. 

Follow @IOPFellows to see what Wendy and the other Fellows are up to throughout the fall.