Henry Kissinger: The man who thinks he's God

Possessed of the biggest ego in the history of diplomacy, he can boast an impressive list of political achievements. But can Richard Nixon's former Secretary of State really fix football?
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The Independent Online

To his detractors, the notion of Henry Kissinger being summoned by Sepp Blatter to help cleanse the rotten house of Fifa is akin to making the Empress Messalina a United Nations special envoy for chastity.

World football's governing body, by all accounts, needs a large dose of two things: humility and openness. But can those qualities be fostered, one may ask, by one of the mightiest egos in the history of diplomacy, whose preferred modus operandi was complete, and not infrequently deceitful, secrecy?

But just possibly the detractors will be proved wrong. There are two Henry Kissingers. There is the Kissinger the world knows best: the historian and geostrategist, the master of realpolitik for whom the end always justifies the means. Then there is Kissinger, the lifelong devotee of Fussball – the boy who stood on the terraces watching the team from his Bavarian hometown of Fürth win cups and championships in the Twenties and Thirties.

In a wonderful article for The Los Angeles Times in June 1986, explaining the national characteristics of the great football powers as reflected in their playing styles, Kissinger wrote of how "my father despaired of a son who preferred to stand for two hours watching a soccer game rather than sit in the comfort at the opera or be protected from the elements in a museum". And when the two Kissingers become one, good things can happen to the game of football.

First though, the Kissinger the world knows: the refugee from Hitler's persecution of the Jews who arrived in the US in 1938 at the age of 15, and who after a glittering academic career would become arguably the most famous diplomat of the 20th century. For eight years, as National Security Adviser and then Secretary of State for presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, he dominated US foreign policy-making. His views are still sought and parsed by today's national leaders, more than three decades after he left government.

Kissinger's achievements, for better or worse, were extraordinary and globe-encompassing. The worst, surely, was seen in Latin America where Washington cheered, and not always from the sidelines, as murderous right-wing military leaders took power from Chile to Argentina. Over Vietnam his record is better; though he will be forever vilified for the secret bombing of Cambodia, Kissinger did secure the 1973 Paris Accords that extricated the US from the war (earning him the the Nobel Peace Prize), but which could not save South Vietnam. More creditable perhaps was détente with the Soviet Union, and the major arms accords of the 1970s that made the world a marginally safer place, at the price though, of protracted proxy wars between the superpowers, from Angola to Afghanistan.

In the Middle East Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy helped to end the 1973 Yom Kippur war. But it took Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977, six months after Kissinger had left office, truly to break the logjam, while – as current events sadly prove – an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is further away than ever.

Kissinger's greatest achievement, however, was the opening to China, a shattering event in its own right, and a masterstroke in strengthening Washington's hand vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The secret trip which started it all, in July 1971, was vintage Kissinger. The cover story was a 48-hour rest stop in a Pakistani hill station after Kissinger had feigned illness during a long Asian trip. Instead he flew from Rawalpindi to Beijing for talks with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. The world knew nothing, but the world had changed for ever. Seven months later, Nixon himself was shaking hands with Chairman Mao.

As a connoisseur of the fall and rise of great powers over the millennia, Kissinger has remained fascinated with China as with nowhere else. Since 1971, he has visited the country 50-odd times. He may be entering his 89th year, but his latest book On China, an absorbing study charting 2,000 years of Chinese history, is climbing the best-seller charts. It is self-revealing too, a tribute paid to the supreme masters of the long game of history by a man who plainly sees himself in that same league.

These days Kissinger has mellowed. That slow and gravelly cartoon German accent has grown even slower and more gravelly. Accompanied by Nancy, his wife of 37 years, he has become a grand old man of the New York scene, exuding gravitas from every pore. But in his heyday, he was a bundle of contradictions.

He was massively egotistical, yet deeply insecure. He was convinced of his intellectual prowess, yet possessed of a child-like sensitivity to criticism. He loved the limelight, yet was addicted to secrecy no less than Nixon. The two had an extraordinary relationship, competing and often deeply unattractive. The king and his ablest courtier were of similar outlook, yet deeply suspicious of each other; at separate times, each wondered whether the other might actually be insane. By the end, as the alcohol-soaked monarch was about to be consumed by Watergate, the courtier was more or less running the show. Kissinger's sense of humour unwittingly underscored his sense of self-importance. "There can't be a crisis next week," he once joked, "my schedule is already full."

Jokes about him (and there have been many) are usually along similar lines, like the one about a man who arrives in heaven and is shown to a table at which titans of history such as Churchill, Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi are seated. At the end of the table, on a throne, sits Kissinger. Why was Kissinger there, the man wonders, "does he think he's God?" No, an angel informs him, "that's God. He thinks he's Henry Kissinger."

To this day, the former Secretary of State remains a polarising figure. Admirers used to call for a change in the constitution to allow a naturalised German-Jewish immigrant to become President. But the humourist Tom Lehrer once bitingly remarked that the day Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was the day that satire died, while critics like Christopher Hitchens have demanded he be tried for war crimes.

About his services to the beautiful game, in the one part of the world that so long seemed oblivious to its charms, there can, however, be little argument. In the 1970s, Kissinger helped to secure the services of Pelé for the New York Cosmos – the move that sparked the first serious US interest in football – by convincing a reluctant Brazilian government that it would do wonders for international relations.

The North American Soccer League in which Pelé played would soon fold, but Kissinger was instrumental in securing the hugely successful 1994 World Cup for the US, in return for creation of a new national league. Major League Soccer kicked off in 1996 with 10 clubs, and now has 18, soon to be 20. More Americans than you'd think now know the names of Messi, Javi, Iniesta and Rooney – indeed last weekend's Champions League final drew a record US television audience of 4.2 million, double the 2010 figure. And this week Americans, for better or worse, have also heard of Sepp Blatter. For all this, Henry Kissinger surely deserves some of the credit.

But is he the man to fix Fifa? Those detractors will insist not, noting that Kissinger was awarded the body's Order of Merit in 1996. But his lobbying failed to prevent Qatar from winning the 2022 World Cup at the expense of the US, so he has been on the losing end of Fifa machinations as well.

Combine this with the man's proven record for wily statecraft – and perhaps he's the perfect person for the job.

A life in brief

Born: Heinz Alfred Kissinger, 27 May 1923, Fürth, Germany

Education: After Manhattan's George Washington High School, he enrolled in the City College of New York. He completed his BA summa cum laude at Harvard in 1950, before his MA and PhD.

Family: His father Louis was a schoolteacher, and mother Paula, a homemaker. He married Ann Fleischer in 1949, with whom he has two children. After divorcing, Kissinger married Nancy Maggines.

Career: Nixon made him National Security Adviser in 1968 and he went on to serve as Secretary of State from 1973-7. In 1982 he founded Kissinger Associates.

He says: "Accept everything about yourself – I mean everything. You are you and that is the beginning and the end – no apologies, no regrets."

They say: "Kissinger has never said a word of self-criticism, not one, and he gets very petulant and angry, and spoilt and ugly when he gets criticised." Christopher Hitchens