Opening photo: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman discusses pressing foreign policy issues and shares her leadership insights during an interview with State Magazine Editor-in-Chief Isaac D. Pacheco in Washington, Sept. 13. Photo by Luis A. Jimenez Jr.
Editor-in-Chief Isaac D. Pacheco: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us today. We really appreciate it.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman: It’s my pleasure to talk with State Magazine, and to talk with everybody who works for the Department of State.
Pacheco: I wanted to start by asking you, where and how American Diplomacy is making the biggest difference today?
Sherman: I think American Diplomacy is making a big difference in a number of ways. One, the President has said, quite frankly, that American Diplomacy is about not only what happens out in the world, but what happens here at home, that our greatest strength comes from the strength of the United States of America, our values, our competitiveness, our entrepreneurship, and we spread those values around the world. But what we do on a day in day out basis is to ensure the prosperity and security of the American people. That’s our solemn obligation.
Pacheco: What are the United States most pressing Foreign policy concerns right now, and how can the Department affect positive outcomes?
Sherman: Well, clearly people have been very focused on Afghanistan and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, not only of our forces, but of Americans who choose to leave, the people who have worked with us over these 20 years that we’ve been there, Afghans who are at risk. That’s taken a lot of time and attention from everybody, not only here at the Department of State, not only in Afghanistan, but in embassies around the world from folks in our Mexico Embassy who helped to do a call center to reach out to Americans, and in India as well, to all of the transit hubs, to all of the countries that are welcoming refugees from Afghanistan, and obviously our deep, deep, deep sorrow and condolences to the families who lost loved ones, both Americans and Afghans, in the terror attack that took place. So Afghanistan has taken a lot of time and attention. But there’s an awful lot else going on in the world. We worry, of course, about the relationship with China, which has taken a lot of time and attention, because we’re going to compete with China, we’re going to challenge China, and we’re going to cooperate with China. So we have that great power relationship, the one with Russia, concerns about arms control, we’ve got a lot of work to do. And I’m really grateful to everybody in the Department of State who works hard every single day, to ensure Americans are safe and prosperous.
Pacheco: So you touched on this a little bit. I want to delve deeper and ask, how the State Department is approaching engagement with nations that routinely violate the basic human rights of their own people?
Sherman: One of the things that’s really terrific coming back to the Department of State, is that President Biden and Secretary Blinken have put human rights at the center of American Diplomacy. That doesn’t mean that everything else goes by the wayside. But it does mean that human rights have to be considered in the decisions that are made. That has not always been the case for presidents of the United States. And it’s very critical, given our value system, that we make sure whether it is deciding on an arms sale, or deciding where we’re going to do Diplomacy, or deciding where we are pushing a leader or a country to move forward, that there is consideration of human rights. So I’m very proud to be in a department where that is at the center of what we do.
Pacheco: Speaking of the Department, what does State need to do to remain effective and continue to excel at its mission in the 21st century?
Sherman: It’s a huge challenge for the Department of State. Because we are diplomats, quite frankly, sometimes we are cautious and risk averse. And the world moves at such a speed that we have to be willing to take some risks. Things are changing very rapidly. Recently, Deputy for Management and Resources, Brian McKeon and I, chaired an operation to try to think through what we should do about cyber and emerging technology here at the Department because quite frankly, things are changing very rapidly. And what the State Department and what Diplomacy will look like a decade from now, it’s going to be very different from what we do now. So we have to get ready for that future. We have to get our skill set up to that future. We have to be ready to take on new technologies, artificial intelligence, and all of the things that are going to come with that future of social media and technology. And we’re not quite there yet.
Pacheco: So it sounds like you mentioned cyber as one of the challenges that we’re facing. With new challenges at home and abroad, what message is the Department working to convey about the value of democracy?
Sherman: There is no question that ensuring that democracies are strengthened and deliver for their people is top of mind for the President, top of mind for Secretary Blinken. In December, there will be a summit for democracy, a commitment that President Biden made during the campaign, because he wants to lift up what it takes for democracies to deliver for their people, to really strengthen the muscles, to make sure that we can deliver, and to say that authoritarian leadership may give people a momentary sense of security, but it undermines all of their individuality, all of their freedom, all of their ability to make sure that they can chart their own course for their own future.
Pacheco: You mentioned co-chairing something with D-MR. Can you tell me about how your leadership role differs from and complements D-MR and this very unique leadership position in the State Department?
Sherman: This is the second time I’ve been at the State Department where there has been a Deputy for Management and Resources. And I have to tell you, I think it’s very effective because the Deputy for Management and Resources, in many ways, operates like a COO. Looking at the operations of the Department, looking at the personnel, thinking about the training, looking at the budget, and the financing, and where we’re headed in terms of the nuts and bolts of what it takes to get our Diplomacy done. And that allows me as the Deputy to look at policy, to deal with crisis, to look at what we’re doing to move forward, the values and the interests of the United States of America. So Brian and I worked very closely together in complement to each other. We can also back each other up when we need to, along with all the other under secretaries of the Department, and all the regional Assistant secretaries, the functional Assistant Secretary, and quite frankly, the women and men who work every single day to do every piece of what it takes to get the job done. And it takes a lot.
Pacheco: Speaking of the ideals that we espouse as a nation, what is the value to the State Department, and more broadly to American Diplomacy and to Foreign policy of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Sherman: It is an absolutely critical objective of the President and the Secretary of State that we have a State Department that looks like America so that we can better represent America. And when that happens, you’re bringing all the richness, all the resources of our country to bear on the Diplomacy that we’re doing. It’s sort of bizarre, quite frankly, that I’m the first woman Deputy Secretary of State. I was the first woman Undersecretary for Political Affairs. It took 2011 to get to that, it took to 2021 to get to me. And I want to make sure that in the future, we have women and men at the forefront of what we do. I want to make sure that people of color, people who are disabled, people who are LGBTQI, people who come from different cultural backgrounds, perhaps their parents were first generation immigrants to this country, that all of that richness, all that diversity comes to bear on our Diplomacy because it will make us more effective and more capable of representing our country.
Pacheco: Speaking from your leadership perspective, from this historic leadership perspective for the State Department, what do you want to add? What do you want to say to the people who make up the workforce that we have here today?
Sherman: I want to say more than anything that I value what each and every one of you do every day no matter your job, whether you’re the driver, whether you are the regional Assistant Secretary, whether you are the desk officer, or whether you are the Public Affairs personnel, whether you are the person who makes sure that all of our facilities are clean and ready to go, or keep our computers running, everybody here has a job that is critical and valuable. And the only way we’re effective is when we operate as a team.
Pacheco: Deputy Secretary Sherman, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, and for your insights.
Sherman: Thank you very much, Isaac. I’m really thrilled that Diplomacy is the first resort for this administration and that the Department of State is at the head of that line for being the Diplomats that we need to be. Thank you.