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Two Phenomena Have Converged in recent years to account for the current interest among international lawyers in the concept of the “consensus” of states. The first is the recognition in jurisprudence that all law, and particularly the international legal system with its lack of centrally organized sanctions, is founded on inductively verifiable psychology and not in deductive principles purportedly derived from God, nature, or reason. If international law is nothing more or less than what states (national decisionmakers and their counsel) think it is, then do not particular rules of international law owe their existence and transmutations to the flow of international consensus?
International law is a system; its environment is the field of international relations. Although the word system is often used generically, it has a formal meaning in “general systems theory,” an interdisciplinary methodology that grew out of cybernetics research in the 1970S. Since then, general systems theory has proved to be a significant heuristic in hundreds of disparate research areas. In describing international law from the viewpoint of an autopoietic system (to be defined shortly), this article intends not just to reexamine the foundations of international law but also to help litigators and negotiators make their international-law arguments sounder and more persuasive.