ESIA Alumna Shares Experiences from the Negotiating Table

Winter in Moscow is relentlessly cold, as Wendy Cutler, ESIA BA ’79, learned when she spent her GW semester abroad in the capital of what was then the Soviet Union. Her time in Moscow also coincided with the Cold War. “It was a “rough semester, frankly,” Wendy says, with a hint of a smile.

But challenges do not deter Wendy Cutler. In a 28-year career with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), she logged thousands of hours at the negotiating table, forging dozens of complex trade agreements and traveling to nearly every corner of Asia. She is known among colleagues as an inveterate problem solver focused on win-win outcomes.

When she retired from USTR in 2015, Wendy had risen to Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, one of the trade deputies to Ambassador Michael Froman. She now serves as vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, one of the nation’s leading think/do tanks centered on enhancing U.S-Asia relations.

GW sparked Wendy’s interest in foreign affairs, partly through chance. After choosing GW to pursue her interest in American history and politics, she enrolled in an international affairs course merely to fulfill a prerequisite. The professor’s passion for his field, however, “got me hooked.”

A chance event also helped launch her career with USTR. After freshman year, Wendy decided she would spend the summer in D.C. At GW’s career center, she spotted an opening for a library assistant with the U.S. Department of Interior. Salary: $3.03 an hour. She eventually found full-time employment at the interior department, working with an exchange program for U.S. and Soviet scientists during a temporary détente between the two superpowers. When détente ended, opportunities in this field dried up.

Undaunted, Wendy decided she needed a graduate degree to advance. A string of successes followed, including a master’s from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a Presidential Management Fellowship with the U.S. government.

She joined USTR in 1988. It was a dream job, incorporating Wendy’s knowledge of trade and economics, passion for international travel, and a growing interest in Asia. She found her colleagues dedicated and the varying nature of the work kept her committed.  “The issues changed. The countries changed. It was an incredible job.”

Among the largest and most challenging of the trade agreements she handled was the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. The agreement, still in force, touches the lives of more than 300 million consumers in the United States and South Korea.

Wendy led the 100-person U.S. delegation, navigating complex issues over 14 months of sometimes heated talks. The page count on the final agreement topped 1,000. At night she would often remain awake, replaying the day in her head, searching for solutions.

True to character, she found the challenge exhilarating. “There was drama. There were many ups and downs. It was a lot of fun,” she says.

How does she keep up her spirits in such tough situations? “You keep your eye on the objective. Your mission is to find a way forward.”  She also focuses on the positive:  pride in the American flag in front of her, a note from a colleague telling her, “You did a great job.”

For those just starting out in the field, Wendy offers a few tips. “Be a good listener, show others you respect them, think out of the box, and find areas of common ground.”

She has some advice for today’s GW students as well. “Being in D.C. opened a lot of doors for me,” she says, but doors open only when you are seeking opportunity.

“Go to lectures, do internships, and network,” she says. Also important: “Keep your options open.”  For Wendy, an entry-level summer job paying just over minimum wage led to a distinguished and rewarding career that is still going strong.

She is enthusiastic about the mission of the Asia Society Policy Institute. “I am in a position to present the Asian perspective to the D.C. policy scene,” she says, adding that she also ensures  U.S.-Asia engagements are meaningful. “We need the world, the world needs us, and looks to us for leadership.”—Amy Aldrich


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