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    Senator John Kerry says much of world conflict fueled by clash of modernity with tribalism

    Mark Wilson/Getty Images
    Senator John Kerry spoke last month outside the US Capitol in Washington.

    LOWELL - Senator John Kerry, a possible secretary of state should President Obama win reelection, said today that much of the conflict around the globe stems from the clash between increasingly technological parts of the world and cultural tribalism embedded in largely uneducated and jobless populations.

    The Massachusetts Democrat said that while he’s proud of the values and charitable works of the United States and other developed countries, they need to recognize that many populations cannot digest their societal norms as quickly as outsiders might like.

    Kerry told students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell that in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, and other trouble spots, 60 percent of the population is under 25, with no real work or educational prospects.


    That leaves broad swaths of the world’s population susceptible to tribal traditions or radical leadership.

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    “Our way of doing things is really very abrupt and disruptive to many of those patterns, and we don’t always see how much it is disruptive and confrontational and, therefore, can’t always understand why somebody can’t see how you could make a quick decision to do something differently, because we see it in their interests, but they don’t necessarily see it as easily and quickly as in their interest,” said Kerry, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    Kerry urged the students to study psychology, comparative religion, and cultures to get a better understanding of others’ perspectives.

    “In my judgment, peace is going to require us to help these countries over this hurdle with the confrontation with modernity, allow some of them to move at their own pace – not necessarily our pace – and help them to build institutional capacity to allow them to be able to embrace modernity without a sense of fear,” the senator said.

    Instead of military deployments, he added, “we need to be deploying far more diplomats and far more doctors and far more social structure today, in many ways, and communicating more effectively.”


    Kerry’s nearly hour-long lesson was interrupted by a telephone call related to his Foreign Relations Committee work. The senator left the room at one point for the 13-minute call. Afterward, he broke away from students and well-wishers to take a second call.

    Kerry refused to reveal who he was talking to, but an aide who answered the phone the second time could be heard saying repeatedly, “Yes, your majesty.”

    The diplomatic challenge of which Kerry spoke was illustrated in the response to a student question about the international news of the day - North Korea’s failed launch of a supposed weather satellite.

    Kerry quipped: “The missile launch that was sending a washing machine wrapped in tin foil up in space?”

    The senator went on to allude to international condemnation of the attempted launch, which regional rivals perceive as cover to test ballistic missile technology.


    “They just seem to find ways to isolate themselves and, frankly, make themselves look less than competent and thoughtful,” he said.

    Kerry said the secretive nation’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, is trying to cement his authority with the launch and an expected atomic weapon test, but is spending money that further isolates his country and impoverishes its residents.

    “I don’t want to be disrespectful to them, but the fact that it didn’t make outer space and fell apart kind of speaks for itself,” said Kerry.

    Kerry spoke at a class about Congress and the presidency taught by the UMass-Lowell chancellor, Martin Meehan, a former member of the US House.

    Kerry noted Meehan’s work with Senator John McCain in 2002 to pass an “epic” campaign finance law. Parts of the law have since been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, fueling the rise of so-called “super PACs” that have allowed millionaires to spend unlimited sums supporting candidates in this year’s presidential race.

    The senator labeled that “tragic” because “it is really robbing our democracy from right out from under us.”

    Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.