The dictionary defines "rogue" as a "rascal" or "scoundrel," or as a fierce, maverick animal. "Rogue" elephants leap to mind, veering off from the herd to cause havoc.
Of course, the few nations that were given that label by the United States were hardly elephantine. More like pesky mice, who nonetheless frightened the big guys with their potential to develop mighty weapons.
This imagery, clearly, can easily get out of hand, even backfire.
Besides attributing more power, and maybe even malice, to a few countries than they sometimes warranted, the term "rogue" tended to blur any distinctions between these nations. And it reinforced a post-cold-war complaint that the US needed new enemies after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Perhaps the use of such a term only incited the "rogues" to act out their reputation. And with the US often out of sync with its Western partners on many international concerns - such as the death penalty - Americans could easily find themselves on the receiving end of such name-calling.
For such reasons the US wisely dropped the term. The "rogues," after all, have been evolving - sometimes for the better - toward what's called international norms of behavior.
How rogues changed
The prime example of a less roguish rogue is North Korea, which just held a historic summit with South Korea and has agreed to a moratorium on missile tests.
The US has responded by removing many economic sanctions that have been in place since the Korean War. The first shipment of Coca-Cola arrived in North Korea on Wednesday, a sign that this hermitlike nation has plenty of catching up to do.
Then there's the Islamic Republic of Iran, with its recent elections that saw the rise of moderates against the entrenched power of clerics. And Libya, with its cooperation in turning over two suspects in the Lockerbie airliner bombing. Any support of terrorists in these countries loses its hold as radical ideology or nationalism fades and as young people demand to join the global economy.
Cuba, which was on the right side of the Elian debate (for the wrong reasons), may yet see the easing of the four-decade-old US embargo. That island nation is not so much a rogue as a relic of a failed ideology amid all the democratic and economic progress in much of Latin America.
Some other former "rogues" - Iraq and Serbia, for example - are a little harder to pin merit badges on.
In fact, all these countries still merit close scrutiny. Their governments, with power often concentrated in a single individual, can be unpredictable at best, treacherous at worst. US moves to counter any threats, such its proposed missile defense, are not invalidated by a change of label. They should, however, be closely tied to actual changes taking place in these countries, not hyperrhetoric at home.
These nations were never all of the same cloth, as the official terminology of the world's only superpower belatedly recognizes. The rather amorphous new term, "states of concern," is unlikely to stick like "rogue nations" did. But that's probably just as well.
The flipside: who's democratic?
Defining which nations are "out" is just as difficult as defining those that are "in."
Next week, the Clinton administration and Poland will host a conference in Warsaw whose invitees will supposedly be the democracies of the world. The final list of attendees will be telling: Nations such as Peru and Zimbabwe, for instance, where elections are a mockery of the term, were not invited.
And the final conference document defining democracy will be the end result of President Clinton's major foreign policy theme: "enlarging democracy." That term, however, has also recently been dropped. Coming from the only superpower, it smacked of cultural imperialism.
Rather, the US is using this conference to build a global consensus on the particulars of democracy - that it's something more than just an election.
It's been 82 years since President Woodrow Wilson uttered the term "self-determination" of peoples that was so used and abused in the 20th century. And it's been a quarter century since President Jimmy Carter tried to put human rights at the center of US foreign policy.
Each generation must carefully define terms that guide how the US uses its influence in the world. Rogue's not in vogue now. Democracy itself is helping bring better terms into use.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society