When Henry Kissinger popped up in an ornate meeting room in Beijing in July with Xi Jinping, China’s leader, the episode became the most vivid symbol of the former diplomat and business consultant’s ability through the decades to put himself next to centers of power.
He crisscrossed the globe to do so, even after turning 100. Mr. Kissinger made the long flight to Beijing to meet with the world’s most powerful autocrat just two months after he became a centenarian. Mr. Xi called Mr. Kissinger an “old friend,” and alluded to the historic secret visit that Mr. Kissinger made in July 1971 that led years later to the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and China.
“Once again, China and the U.S. are at a crossroads of where to go from here, and once again, both sides need to make a choice,” Mr. Xi said, according to Chinese state media reports.
For decades following his roles as national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations, Mr. Kissinger oversaw a lucrative business consultancy that relied on his name recognition and his contacts with senior American and foreign officials. It was a model that many U.S. government officials would follow in their careers.
Critics say Mr. Kissinger profited after he left government — and into his 100th year — on a business built off what they call “war crimes” he committed while he was in office, including his endorsement of the mass bombings by the U.S. military of Cambodia and Laos and the bloody efforts by Pakistani leaders to suppress an independence movement in current-day Bangladesh, as well as massacres in Indonesia.
Mr. Kissinger kept traveling the world as a business consultant even in recent months, in what appeared to be a continuation of his need to gravitate to figures of power.
Elbridge Colby, a Defense Department strategist in the Trump administration who advocates a rapid U.S. military buildup to deter China, wrote on the X social media platform on Thursday that while Mr. Kissinger was a solid writer and historian, his philosophical character clashed with “his own visibly almost desperate desire to be honored and on ‘the inside.’”
“All political types want recognition, but his was at another level,” Mr. Colby added.
A central question that looms over Mr. Kissinger’s later years is whether his ideas on foreign policy and America’s role in the world had become outdated. He continued to push the notion that friendly U.S.-China relations were a crucial organizing principle for the world, an idea popular with both his business clients and Chinese officials. Yet, many politicians and foreign policy experts in Washington have moved in the opposite direction in recent years.
They assert that Mr. Xi’s strong ideological outlook and China’s military expansion — as well as America’s desire to remain the pre-eminent military power in Asia — have made a deepening rivalry inevitable.
Mr. Kissinger’s persistent proximity to power and profit was evident at a 100th birthday party thrown for him by wealthy friends at the New York Public Library in June. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken stopped by while en route to leaving the country to visit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the autocratic leader of Saudi Arabia. William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, dropped in. So did Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and a human rights scholar, who years ago wrote critically of Mr. Kissinger’s roles in genocides of the 20th century.
When asked later at a news conference what Mr. Blinken liked about Mr. Kissinger, Vedant Patel, the State Department deputy spokesman, said there was an “important perspective to be gained through those conversations with predecessors.”