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Wendy Sherman leads the Biden administration's strategic dialogue with Russia

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

If Russia chooses diplomacy over conflict in Ukraine, you may start hearing the name Wendy Sherman more often. She's the deputy secretary of state and has led the Biden administration's strategic dialogue with Russia. As NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen reports, it's a tough assignment in a world where China and Russia are both challenging the U.S.-led global order.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When she attended a recent NATO-Russia council meeting, Wendy Sherman didn't have her usual scripted remarks. Instead, she tells NPR, she scribbled down some notes as she listened to the Russians and others speak.

WENDY SHERMAN: And I wanted to make sure that the world knew two things. One, it had not always been thus - that in World War II, we had fought together, we and Russia, for the liberation of Europe, and that what we were talking about here was sticking with the principles that were established after World War II by which the world has operated.

KELEMEN: Sherman made it personal, talking about her Jewish grandmother, who was born in what's now Ukraine, and her father, who enlisted as a marine in World War II.

SHERMAN: The few words that I spoke seemed to match the moment. There was a lot of silence. And, quite frankly, other members came up to me because they had lived this or their parents have lived this. And what I said was their lives and what was at stake here.

KELEMEN: Sherman has known her Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, for years. They negotiated over Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles and over Iran's nuclear program during the Obama administration. Republicans often criticize her for her role in that Iran deal, which the Trump administration left. But Thomas Graham of the Council on Foreign Relations says politicians need to be realistic. Adversaries don't just capitulate, he says. Diplomacy is about making compromises, as he found out leading talks with Russia during the Bush administration.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Compromises have to - are mutual. Russians have to give something. We have to give something in an effort to find a way towards a resolution that avoids a military conflict, which I think neither side really wants.

KELEMEN: Graham worries that the 24/7 news cycle makes it harder for diplomats to work quietly behind closed doors. Wendy Sherman often compares negotiations to mushrooms, which, as she puts it, do best in the dark.

A former social worker from Baltimore, Sherman first joined the State Department in the Clinton administration and says she learned a lot as a top aide to Madeleine Albright, America's first female secretary of state.

SHERMAN: She taught me early on that when one negotiates, I am not really Wendy Sherman or even a woman or a 72-year-old grandmother. I am the United States of America. And if one understands that, you come to the table with an enormous amount of power, and one has to use it wisely.

KELEMEN: That was a time when the U.S. was at the height of its power, though, says Graham. He says that power started waning when he was in government with the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis.

GRAHAM: We lost our reputation for wise policy. We lost our reputation for competence. And that, I think, sparked the revisionism that you've seen or reinforced the revisionism you've seen on the part of Russia and China over the past 10 to 15 years.

KELEMEN: While he describes Sherman as a professional negotiator, he says it's the White House that will have to come up with an effective strategy to deal with these revisionist powers. Stanford University's Rose Gottemoeller says it's a tough world out there, starting with China.

ROSE GOTTEMOELLER: It has risen rapidly and is modernizing its nuclear forces and throwing its financial weight around, but also with the Russians now being so assertive in such a - such an overwhelmingly negative way.

KELEMEN: And that makes it hard for any U.S. diplomat, says Gottemoeller, a former NATO deputy secretary general.

GOTTEMOELLER: You know, there's a question out there - how effective can the United States and its normally pragmatic and problem-solving approach - how effective can the United States be in these circumstances? Also, at a time when many people around the world are questioning the U.S. ability to govern itself, as well.

KELEMEN: The Biden administration has looked to Deputy Secretary Sherman to test the waters. In addition to negotiating with the Russians, she was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit China last year.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.