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Chinese President Hu Jintao stands alongside former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger after being introduced prior to speaking during a luncheon for corporate and policy leaders co-hosted by the US-China Business Council and the National Committee on US-China Relations at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, DC, January 20, 2011.SAUL LOEB

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.

Most of Dr. Kissinger's working life has unfolded outside government, as a consultant, author and éminence grise. The consulting firm he founded, Kissinger Associates, has advised companies such as Coca-Cola and insurance giant American International Group on doing business in various parts of the globe and served as a stepping stone for several notable careers (its alumni include Timothy Geithner, the current U.S. Treasury Secretary, and Paul Bremer, the former top American official in Iraq).

All the while, Dr. Kissinger has acted as an informal liaison between the U.S. and China. If he meets with current Chinese leaders, he gets a briefing from the State Department before his trip, then reports back upon his return. Hillary Clinton, the current Secretary of State, is "a good friend of mine," he says.

Among diplomats, Dr. Kissinger is "still a bit of a rock star," says Jussi Hanhimäki, a historian in Switzerland who has written a book about his career. "The Kissinger name carries so much weight still, a testimony either to his success as a statesman or his success in selling his own message through his writings."

The rock star remains highly attuned to his public image. Dr. Kissinger reads reviews of On China carefully. He commends the one that appeared in The Globe, despite what he calls a "nutty" anecdote at the beginning of the piece about a CIA plot to assassinate Zhou Enlai.

Dr. Kissinger's latest book appears to unfold in a realm of pure diplomacy, but the reality is more complex. One striking episode occurs when he travels to Beijing in November, 1989, in the tense months following the Tiananmen Square massacre. There he meets with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and helps resolve a standoff over a dissident who sought refuge in the U.S. embassy. A reader would never know that Maurice Greenberg, the chief executive of American International Group, accompanied him on the trip. Mr. Greenberg later gushed about the benefits of travelling with Dr. Kissinger in China, where his stature produced a "nice rub-off effect."

For the most part, Dr. Kissinger has managed to balance his roles as businessman and elder statesman. The one glaring exception occurred when president George W. Bush named him chairman of the commission investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Legislators demanded Dr. Kissinger reveal his consulting clients to flush out any conflicts of interest, something he ultimately did not do. Instead he resigned, saying the controversy would not fade unless he shut down his firm altogether.

That disappointment has faded - or at least he doesn't mention it when I ask if there are any regrets about the paths not taken in his career. "I've been lucky. I've been able to do the things that interest me on issues that I thought were important," he says.

These days, he estimates that he is outside the office travelling 40 per cent of the time. Aside from one weak eye - I am instructed to sit to his left - and a cane propped near the door, there are no signs of physical infirmity. He ascribes his longevity purely to good genes, noting that both his parents lived into their late 90s.

When Dr. Kissinger is asked to identify present-day heirs to his own practice of foreign policy - an unsentimental approach wedded to history and realpolitik - he demurs. "It's bound to be a different way of looking at foreign policy in an Internet generation from that brought up on books," he says. Today's scholars have a wealth of information at their fingertips, but rely less on overarching concepts and a deep understanding of history, he says.

Gradually his answers grow more perfunctory and he repeatedly looks at his watch: Our time is up. Dr. Kissinger escorts me to the door, thanks me for coming, and retreats back into his office.

Editor's Note: The Munk Debates are semi-annual events that feature prominent figures in their fields. The next debate, to be held June 17, asks whether the 21st century will belong to China. It features former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger alongside economist David Daokui Li, CNN host Fareed Zakaria and historian Niall Ferguson.

The Munk Debates are offering eight VIP tickets to see the China debate on June 17 at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall. Go head-to-head against a friend and post the video on the Munk Debates online forum. The top two most-viewed entries win. Find more information and enter at www.munkdebates.com/head-to-head

For more news, videos, interviews and biographies, follow The Globe and Mail 's coverage of the upcoming debate here.