Pope John Paul II has died at the age of 84. There will be many analyses of his papacy in the coming days, but a few points from an international relations perspective are worth noting here.
As a native of Poland, John Paul brought to the Vatican an uncommon combination of qualities. He was finely attuned to the principles of power politics--realism--but, at the same time, strongly convinced of the significance of human rights. These characteristics merged in what might have been the defining feature of the first half of his papacy, his staunch opposition to communism. In Eastern Europe, his anticommunism provided moral support (although little else) for those who were determined to end Soviet domination. In Latin America, however, it caused him to be suspicious of those trying to overthrow right-wing dictatorships. Like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, John Paul seemed far less concerned about authoritarian regimes than about communist dictatorships.
The Catholic Church under John Paul's leadership made common cause with Muslims and evangelical Protestants against all proposals to control population growth or slow the spread of HIV/AIDS that were not based on sexual abstinence alone. Africa, where the Catholic Church experienced its greatest growth during John Paul's papacy, experienced enormous human suffering during the same period due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. While Catholic teachings on birth control are generally ignored in the United States and Europe, they have generally been accepted, often with disastrous results, by new converts in Africa.
His extensive travels, his efforts to communicate in the local language wherever he went, and his obvious concern for the downtrodden made John Paul II enormously popular among Catholics all over the world. He was not, however, responsible for the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. In fact, it would be closer to the truth (although still hyperbolic) to say that, with the rise of abortion as a wedge issue in American politics, he was responsible for the decline of the Democratic Party in the United States.