International state-building has become central to international policy concerns and has marked a clear neo-Wilsonian shift in international thinking, spurred by the leadership of the United States and the European Union. Today's approaches insist on the regulatory role of international institutions and downplay the importance of locally-derived political solutions. This privileging of 'governance' over 'government' is based on the assumption that the political process can be externally influenced through the promotion of institutional changes introduced at the state level and pays less attention to how societal pressures and demands are constitutive of stable and legitimate institutional mechanisms. This article questions this approach and analyses the transformation in the assessment of the importance of the societal sphere. It considers how this shift has been shaped by current understandings of war and conflict, and how the prioritisation of governance has fitted with critical and post-positivist trends in academic thinking in international relations and security studies. The discussion is illustrated with examples drawn largely from the Balkans and the international regime in Bosnia-Herzegovina in particular.