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This is a question that I took up in 2000 in these pages.That was a time that we as a nation revealingly called "the post-Cold War era." We knew better where we had been than where we were going.
Beyond these general considerations, however, the two uses of the concept have little in common.
In its action usage the concept lacks structure and content but, nevertheless, serves its users, political actors, well.
As an analytic tool the concept is more precise and elaborate but, nevertheless, confounds the efforts of its users, political analysts.
These differences arise out of the fact that the national interest is rooted in values (“what is best”).
Consequently, even though it has lost some of its early appeal as an analytic tool, the national interest enjoys considerable favor as a basis for action and has won a prominent place in the dialogue of public affairs.
The national interest has a much longer history as an instrument of action than as a tool of analysis.
What has changed is, most broadly, how we view the relationship between the dynamics within states and the distribution of power among them.
As globalization strengthens some states, it exposes and exacerbates the failings of many others -- those too weak or poorly governed to address challenges within their borders and prevent them from spilling out and destabilizing the international order.
As an analytic tool, it is employed to describe, explain, or evaluate the sources or the adequacy of a nation’s foreign policy.
As an instrument of political action, it serves as a means of justifying, denouncing, or proposing policies.