CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that one of the keys to successful diplomacy is the ability to listen carefully — especially when talking with leaders with whom you may be at odds.
Kerry said he expects to put his listening skills to the test, particularly in ongoing discussions with Russian President Putin over that country's activity in Syria.
"I think a very important part of diplomacy is listening and making sure you hear what's really beneath the other person's ... complaints or perceptions and not allowing yourself to get distracted by the daily din and screed of the 24-hour talk circuit and politics, particularly in a presidential year," Kerry said during a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School.
"You just got to have a steady sense of what's real and what isn't real," he said.
During the talk, Kerry touched on a number of hot spots, from Syria and Israel to North Korea and the fight against the Islamic State group.
Kerry said that compared to the world in which he grew up, which was defined by the Cold War and the United States vs. the Soviet Union, the world that has emerged since the fall of the Berlin Wall unleashed long-stifled forces, calling for a more complex foreign policy.
But he also said that compared to the last century — which saw the deaths of tens of millions of people in wars fought between states — the conflicts now typically involve non-state actors with far smaller overall death tolls.
And while groups like the Islamic State militants can adopt gruesome tactics, they can't compare to the scale of the wars of the 20th century, Kerry said.
"That's a different animal," he said.
Kerry said that while the Islamic State group must be defeated, he is determined not to see Americans embroiled in a larger war in the Middle East.
Kerry, who will be nation's top diplomat for 16 more months, said he has no intentions of slowing down.
In the South China seas, for example, Kerry said the U.S. is asserting its right to fly and sail in all international waters.
"We will not be intimidated in the South China seas," Kerry said in a challenge to China's territorial claims to a Chinese-built island in the sea. "We are unbending on that and we have made that very clear."
Kerry said in some cases there is little the United States can do until a foreign situation "ripens" to the point where action by the U.S. has a chance to succeed.
"I think there's no room for hubris in diplomacy," he said. "It's an invitation to disaster."
He also faulted the U.S. for not investing more in strengthening its alliances around the world and advocating for American values on an international stage.
"We are behaving like a poor country when we're the richest country on the face of the planet," he said. "We need to get our act together."