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Richard Collins

This chapter considers the idea or, better, ideal of the autonomy of international law. It seeks to challenge a common understanding of this autonomy that emerges in recurring disciplinary narratives aimed at demonstrating the objective impact of international legal rules in the conduct of international politics. I argue that the autonomy of international legal rules is best understood, and defended, by reference to its abstract systematicity, rather than – as has been common – the capacity of those rules to generate and impose objective standards that might restrict or preempt the political choices of states and other actors. While this more modest understanding of the autonomy of international law will not necessarily mean that it is capable of restraining the arbitrary choices and actions of powerful actors, defending the systemic autonomy of the international legal order will allow the construction of a distinctive mode of international politics that acts as an important counterfactual and critical normative discourse which structures the way in which those politics play out in practice.