John Kerry Explains Why World Leaders Are Scared of Young People

And how America isn't dealing with the problem

Max Taylor/The Atlantic

What are the top concerns of the chief diplomat of the most powerful country in the world? For one thing, people under the age of 35.

In a conversation with The Atlantic's Steve Clemons at the Washington Ideas Forum on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry cited a world of "masses of young people"—concentrated especially in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—where "if these kids are left to no devices, or their own ... something is going to come along and say, 'The world is disappointing you, and we're a better alternative.' How else do you get young kids to strap themselves in suicide vests and think thing are better on the other side? But that's happening."

It's a fear Kerry said he's heard voiced by his counterpart foreign ministers in other parts of the world. One African foreign minister described to him how extremists were able to recruit youth in villages—by pouring money into poor areas, indoctrinating young people, and then letting those new recruits recruit others in a self-perpetuating strategy. "They're disciplined," Kerry recalled his counterpart saying of terrorist recruiters. "And they don't have a five-year plan. They have a 30-year plan."

"We don't even have a five-year plan," Kerry continued. "We have got to get our act together."

"We talk about democracy," he said. "We go out and we extol the virtues of our way of life, but are we backing it up?"

To the extent demography is destiny, the challenge of the global youth bulge suggests a diplomatic strategy whose results will have to be measured in decades, not months or even years. If Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's point yesterday was that Americans need to get used to endless war, his counterpart at State suggested Americans also need to get used to diplomacy that moves very, very slowly.