Kissinger was national security adviser in President Richard Nixon's administration, and almost 40 years ago he made a secret trip to confer with the Chinese, a voyage that paved the way for the normalization of relations between Washington and Communist China. He recently has written a book, "On China," and appeared Sunday on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS."
Asked whether he had any inkling four decades ago that China would become the global power it is today, competing with the United States economically and technologically, Kissinger said, "It would have been inconceivable. Nobody had any such perception or expectation."
Since those talks, relations between China and the United States have remained stable, Zakaria noted. In recent years, China has tried to get America's help in modernizing its economy, tacitly supporting a lot of U.S. foreign policy, Zakaria said. But some believe that may be changing now and that a new chapter of Chinese foreign policy may be beginning.
"There are elements in China who, particularly after the financial crisis, feel that there has been a fundamental shift in the balance of power and that the international conduct of China and the results of its conduct should reflect this," Kissinger said. "But one shouldn't think that all of this is America's fault, because the Chinese - we have been dominant in the last 50 years - they've been dominant in 1,800 of the last 2,000 years.
"And you know, I think America is entering a world in which we are neither dominant nor can we withdraw, but we are still the most powerful country," he said. "So how to conduct ourselves in such a world - it's a huge test for us. And China is the most closely approximate country in terms of power. And one with such a complex history. It's a big challenge."
Another Cold War is not the answer, he said, as that "would lead to confrontations over an extended period of time that would be draining to both societies and draining to the countries that have to deal with both societies."
President Barack Obama's approach to China is "fundamentally correct," said Kissinger, who served as secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Gerald Ford. "What we fundamentally need with the Chinese is to come to an understanding of where we both think we are going.
"And I believe the best thing that Nixon did, that we did in the Nixon administration, was not that we were super skillful on practical problems, but we were willing to spend many hours explaining how we thought in middle- and long-run terms, and so did the Chinese."
While that didn't help on the actual day of the conversation, "when something came up, you could have some feeling that the other side, when it was reported to them, would have a framework within which to interpret it," he said. "This is still not adequately done."
Asked whether he is reluctant to criticize China more publicly on its human rights record, Kissinger said, "I'm not reluctant at all. And I insist on affirming my preference for democracy and my rejection of autocratic and dictatorial institutions. At the same time, there are a number of people, very few, who have, over a period of decades, established the confidence of the Chinese leadership. And we think that we are in a better position to bring about the achievement of these objectives by using influence in such a way that there is no demonstrated victor or loser.
"I have said that when I engage myself in China, as I do periodically on individual cases, I do not do it in a public confrontation, but in a personal dialogue. That is really the nature of the disagreement. It is not a disagreement as to the importance of the objective," he said.
On whether he thinks Obama is "Kissingerian," Kissinger - who endorsed Republican candidate Sen. John McCain in the 2008 election - said, "My impression of Obama is that he would like to believe that you can sweep the world by the power of ideas, and that the ideas alone will dominate the world, and that you can ignore the equilibrium part of the equality, and that you can do it with rhetoric. ... That's what he'd like to believe."
But Obama, he said, is also "a good mind. And so he looks at the world and sees what's actually happening. So when he speaks, he often sounds as if he were in the world of ideas alone. When he acts, he is very conscious of reality. I think he's basically very close, if I put his actions together, to the objectives that I affirm."
Obama, he said, may view his remarks as "a private compliment, but he will not want to advertise it."