Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, left, with President Richard Nixon...

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, left, with President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1973. Credit: AP

There is a certain symbolism in the fact that Henry Kissinger, the man whose career helped shape so many events in the 20th century, lived to be exactly a century old.

Few public figures have been so polarizing. He has been hailed as a wise elder statesman and reviled as a war criminal. While he did not coin the word “realpolitik” — politics based on pragmatism and not ideology or morality — he was seen as one of its chief practitioners. What his realpolitik accomplished is a question on which the jury may never deliver a unanimous verdict.

As national security adviser and secretary of state under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, Kissinger found himself at the center of international crises that rocked the world. Those who see him as a villain point to his collusion with brutal anti-communist dictatorships in Chile and Argentina that he saw as resisting Soviet expansion, as well as his role in the secret carpet bombing of Cambodia which resulted in the deaths of as many 150,000 civilians Those who see him as a wise man point to his role in the normalization of relations with the Soviet Union and, especially, with China. Kissinger’s anticommunism was pragmatic when necessary.

Some anti-Kissinger rhetoric on the left has been hyperbolic, sometimes seeming to blame his Cambodia policies for the Khmer Rouge atrocities more than the Khmer Rouge themselves. But American involvement with anti-communist dictatorships in Central and South America probably did hurt the anti-communist cause by linking it to regimes that engaged in horrific reprisals against political opponents.

Kissinger’s “pragmatic” overtures to China and the USSR, often praised even by those who otherwise vilify him, may have been no less morally compromised. Detente with the USSR did little to stop Soviet expansionism and finally crashed against the invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. In the 1980s, it was Ronald Reagan’s seemingly more militant and inflexible attitude, rooted in a moral vision of freedom, that helped bring about change few had thought possible in the Soviet bloc — and, eventually, improved relations on a more secure basis.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-China rapprochement, which Kissinger midwifed, was largely responsible for ushering in the new China — the economic powerhouse that exports its products all over the world and dominates consumer markets. Yet the hope that these changes would lead to a more liberal, more U.S.-friendly China has not been vindicated.

Today, China’s economic strength and integration into world markets fuels its military might as part of an authoritarian axis. And, discussing Kissinger’s legacy on a podcast, Eric Edelman, former undersecretary of defense in 2005-2009, expressed the view that Kissinger and Nixon “gave away too much” to Communist China in 1972, likely endangering Taiwan by weakening U.S. support for it.

Ultimately, perhaps, the problem with realpolitik is that it may not be very realistic. It overestimates the pragmatism of oppressive regimes, and it underestimates the will to freedom among the oppressed.

Toward the very end of his life, Kissinger had a surprising change of heart on a key issue: Russia and Ukraine. A longtime exponent of the view that Ukraine was too important to Russia — politically and culturally — to allow it to become part of a pro-Western alliance, Kissinger was criticized by some an apologist for Russian imperialism. Yet this year, he came out in support of admitting Ukraine to NATO, acknowledging that Russian aggression had changed his mind. You could call it a pragmatic shift, or a recognition that morality matters.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

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