Nixon remembers world leaders he has known; Leaders, by Richard Nixon. New York: Warner Books. 371 pp. $17.50.

Richard Nixon will always be remembered for Watergate. But the former President's forte was foreign affairs.

Thus, it's doubtful that even the most rabid Nixonophobe will find much fault with the author's recollections of world leaders he was privileged to know during his checkered political career.

''Leaders'' is fascinating, not only for the profiles of those who have shaped the modern world, but because it provides a personal perspective on leadership from a man whose failures have affected the way Americans will measure their chief executives. Mr. Nixon delineates the significant difference between leadership and management. The manager, he maintains, is primarily concerned with short-term results, while the leader is a man of vision who concentrates on the future. Accordingly, his subjects are those individuals whose long view was never limited by the problem of political risks. Therefore, the leaders he features were frequently rejected by their constituencies because they refused to play it safe.

A case in point is Winston Churchill, whose political career was constantly interrupted by setbacks. Yet his perseverance in the face of adversity is the quality that the author most admires about the redoubtable Englishman.

Here was a man who would not fit into the media mold that has homogenized many modern politicians. Churchill's mythic personality and commanding presence never failed to inspire a mixture of awe and admiration from those who made his acquaintance. And Richard Nixon was no exception when he met the aging lion in 1954 during his last official visit to the United States as prime minister. Churchill's physical reflexes had been slowed by illness, but Nixon recalls there was nothing wrong with his political reflexes, as he instructed the vice-president in the art of charming a crowd.

The author's profile of Charles de Gaulle is especially vivid, for he clearly reveres the French leader's strength of character. ''He was,'' Nixon says, ''stubborn, willfull, supremely self-confident, a man of enormous ego and yet at the same time enormous selflessness: He was demanding not for himself but for France. He lived simply but dreamed grandly. He acted a part, playing a role he created in a way that fit only one actor. Even more he fashioned (himself) so he could play it. He created de Gaulle, the public person, to play the role of de Gaulle, the personification of France.''

Nixon not only appreciates de Gaulle's stage presence, but admires the French leader's sense of timing for knowing when to make a graceful exit from government.

The author's most memorable portrait concerns Konrad Adenauer, who was both a personal friend and mentor. They first met in 1947, when Nixon visited Germany as part of a congressional delegation studying the Marshall Plan. He was immediately drawn to the self-made Rhinelander who became West German Chancellor , the architect of a political rapprochement with France, and the driving force behind NATO and the European Common Market.

Yet, for all of his political accomplishments, Nixon recalls Adenauer's private side: ''A man who was inflexible in adherence to principle but shrewd and subtle in tactics; a man outwardly stiff and austere but who, to those fortunate to be his friends, was cherished as a warm and sensitive human being with a captivating sense of humor; a man who deeply loved his family, his church , and his people; . . . a man one could always count on to stand firm as a rock no matter how great the risks or desperate the odds.''

The profiles of Nikita Khrushchev and Chou En-lai aren't quite as intimate, but they are no less intriguing.

Nixon remembers the Soviet premier as a pugnacious, yet perceptive, political figure, whose histrionics were always calculated to achieve an advantage. From the time the two of them engaged in their celebrated ''kitchen debate'' until the Kremlin banished him to internal exile in 1964, Nixon respected Khrushchev as a brilliant adversary whose ''devastating sense of humor, agile intelligence, tenacious sense of purpose, and brutal will to power'' were weapons in his formidable arsenal.

The inscrutable Chinese Communist leader was even more compelling for his subtle strength and his instinct for survival. Nixon first met Chou En-lai on a trip to Peking in 1972 to reestablish diplomatic relations between the US and China. He recalls Chou as ''a Confucian gentleman, a devoted ideologue and a calculating realist'' whose unfailing political instincts made him the power behind Mao Tse-tung's throne. And though the author concedes that, minus Mao, the Chinese Communist revolution would never have caught fire, he stresses that ''without Chou it would have burned out and only the ashes would remain.'' For he notes that Chou had the rare ability among revolutionaries to see the need for retaining what was best from the past while forging a new society.

Nixon's profiles of 15 other postwar politicos are quite good, and his concluding reflections on the nature of power are particularly revealing. Especially haunting is his melancholy observation: ''Power is the opportunity to build, to create, to nudge history in a different direction. There are few satisfactions to match it for those who care about such things. But it is not happiness. Those who seek happiness will not acquire power and would not use it well if they did acquire it."

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