Curled into a sofa in a corner of his Park Avenue office, his foot propped casually on the coffee table, Henry Kissinger is describing his most recent trip to China. He arrived in the spring of last year and as always, received a warm welcome: Zhu Rongji, the country's former premier, invited Dr. Kissinger to his home in the hills outside Beijing, where the two octogenarians took in a performance by musicians playing traditional instruments.
Dr. Kissinger is returning to China later this month, so I ask him whether there are any meetings planned with current or former leaders. He is silent for a moment. "I would be amazed if there were not," he says, in a slow, gravelly voice. "Because they know what I need, what I want."
What Dr. Kissinger wants, it becomes clear, is to convey that he still has influence in world affairs. That influence - both formal and informal - is on display in his first new book in eight years. Titled simply On China, it is a 500-page tome that combines a telescopic view of Chinese history with firsthand insights into critical moments in U.S.-China relations. It concludes with an earnest call for the two countries to co-operate, but - this is Henry Kissinger, after all - also a cold-eyed acknowledgment that rivalry may be inevitable.
The book's timing owes as much to personal considerations as it does to geopolitics. "If you look at my age," - he stops and smiles, his face creasing into a fabric of fine lines - "you can't wait indefinitely." Now 88, Dr. Kissinger is aware that On China could be his final book. Its publication may also be one of his last chances to shape his legacy - a project, some would argue, that has absorbed his attention ever since he left politics in 1977, in the form of writings and public appearances.
Dr. Kissinger occupies a place in modern American diplomacy for which there is no real equivalent, a figure alternately revered and reviled. A secretary of state to two presidents, he helped establish formal relations between the U.S. and China, reduce tensions with the Soviet Union, and negotiate a ceasefire in Vietnam (an accomplishment for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973).
Yet he is also synonymous with the secret U.S. bombing campaign of Cambodia, its support for an anti-democratic coup in Chile and its tacit approval of the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia. His policy choices were nothing short of disastrous from a human-rights perspective, critics say.
Before our interview, I am ushered into a small waiting room where the walls feature Asian-style prints together with a framed copy of the U.S. Bill of Rights, the amendments to the constitution that elaborate Americans' basic freedoms.
Inside the office, the shades are drawn against the bright morning sunlight. Crowded onto every available window ledge are framed photographs of Dr. Kissinger with former presidents and world leaders.
His status as the ultimate insider tends to obscure what is a remarkable immigrant story (to this day, his speech is tinged with a German accent). Born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Bavaria, the young Dr. Henry Kissinger was slight and studious and a devoted soccer fan. His parents fled the Nazi regime months before Kristallnacht, when he was just 15, and settled in New York.
He later served in the U.S. Army during the Second World War and studied at Harvard University, where he attracted the attention of William Elliott, a professor and adviser to several American presidents. Dr. Kissinger's dissertation was a treatise on the 19th-century statesman Klemens von Metternich.
As his biographer Walter Isaacson has noted, Dr. Kissinger's journey from a tight-knit émigré community in New York all the way to the inner workings of the White House was the product of two enduring personality traits - ambition and insecurity.
In person, Dr. Kissinger is both avuncular and imperious. He speaks fondly of his grandchildren one moment and, in another, tells me to abandon a line of questioning (a recent Wall Street Journal interview turned testy after Dr. Kissinger was prodded about how to raise human-rights concerns with China).
True to his reputation for wit, Dr. Kissinger turns out to be funny, in a bone-dry way. We talk about his upcoming trip to Toronto to participate in the Munk Debate on June 17, whose topic is the rise of China.
In his long career, it seems Dr. Kissinger has never once participated in a formal debate. "I expect to lose," he says. Later he remarks, in a deadpan voice, that the mere prospect of debating could be enough to induce "a state of emotional exhaustion."
Of course, this could all be a feint designed to disarm his opponents. This, after all, is a man who, while serving as Secretary of State, refused repeated invitations from the Russian ambassador to join him for a game of chess. Why? "Because (a) I knew he would beat me, and (b) I didn't want him to study my thinking," he recalls.