This article discusses how and under what conditions ideas coming from International Relations (IR) scholarship are used in foreign policy. We argue that the focus on policy relevance, which dominates the IR literature on the research-policy interface, is limited. Focusing instead on political utilisation highlights types and mechanisms of political impact, which are overlooked in studies on policy relevance. The fruitfulness of this change in focus is showed in an analysis of how Samuel Huntington's ‘clash of civilizations’ notion and Joseph Nye's ‘soft power’ concept have been used in US foreign policy. George W. Bush's explicit critique and reframing of ‘the clash’ thesis should not be interpreted as absence of impact, but as a significant symbolic utilisation, which has helped legitimate US foreign policy. Likewise, in the few instances in which the notion of ‘soft power’ has been used explicitly, it has played a conceptual and symbolical rather than instrumental role. More generally, this article argues that accessible framing and paradigm compatibility are essential for political utilisation of ideas.