The paper develops a more precise specification and understanding of the process of national-level knowledge accumulation and absorptive capabilities by applying the reasoning and evidence from the firm-level analysis pioneered by Cohen and Levinthal (1989, 1990). In doing so, we acknowledge that significant cross-border effects due to the role of both inward and outward FDI exist and that assimilation of foreign knowledge is not only confined to catching-up economies but is also carried out by countries at the frontier-sharing phase. We postulate a non-linear relationship between national absorptive capacity and the technological gap, due to the effects of the cumulative nature of the learning process and the increase complexity of external knowledge as the country approaches the technological frontier. We argue that national absorptive capacity and the accumulation of knowledge stock are simultaneously determined. This implies that different phases of technological development require different strategies. During the catching-up phase, knowledge accumulation occurs predominately through the absorption of trade and/or inward FDI-related R&D spillovers. At the pre-frontier-sharing phase onwards, increases in the knowledge base occur largely through independent knowledge creation and actively accessing foreign-located technological spillovers, inter alia through outward FDI-related R&D, joint ventures and strategic alliances.