A bird in the hand: Temporal focal points and change in international institutions

  • Michael W. Manulak


This article develops a theoretical explanation for the timing of change in international institutions. It provides a rational choice response to key insights of historical institutionalist scholarship. Many existing theories—such as rational choice and sociological institutionalisms—explain the timing of change mainly by listing its causes. An analysis of the timing of change in many realms of institutional activity, however, demonstrates that incentives to alter institutions frequently accumulate, unaddressed for extended periods of time. The result is persistent institutional suboptimality, punctuated intermittently by phases of transformation. To account for divergence from the expectations of existing theories, I test two hypotheses concerning the role of transaction costs and temporal coordination dilemmas in hindering change. Introducing the concept of Temporal Focal Points, the article explains why temporal landmarks, such as international crises and prominent anniversaries, are frequently associated with non-linear, transformative change. To assess the explanatory potential of this framework, I analyze the record of change in United Nations environmental institutions. The case study supports the hypotheses advanced, leading to the conclusion that the when of institutional change can tell us a lot about the why of change.


International institutions Institutional change Global governance Global environmental politics Rational choice institutionalism Historical institutionalism 



I would like to express my appreciation to Anne Deighton, Orfeo Fioretos, Judy Goldstein, Norman Hillmer, Robert Keohane, Audri Mukhopadhyay, Walter Mattli, Louis Pauly, Krzysztof Pelc, Duncan Snidal, David Welch, and three anonymous reviewers for their guidance and suggestions on the research and ideas contained in the following pages.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael W. Manulak
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Balsillie School of International AffairsUniversity of WaterlooWaterlooCanada
  2. 2.OttawaCanada

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