Although marine spatial planning (MSP) is increasingly being applied worldwide, it appears to be based on an ambiguity that has arisen from its dichotomous role of ensuring both conservation and development. This elusive ideal hints at a possible discrepancy between theory and practice. This paper explores the hypothesis that beyond a performative narrative, MSP is actually better described as a variety of devices which fulfil other roles and converge in terms of planning type. To test this hypothesis, this paper analyses the content of past and present MSP initiatives from around the world. The findings show that these initiatives view MSP either as a strategic sectoral spatial planning tool or strategic planning tool, brought in to complement existing initiatives. Furthermore, these two approaches can actually be seen to converge in the type of planning used, through the role attributed to spatial aspects, and more specifically in the place given to zoning. There are two key implications of these findings: the need to open up theoretical debates more broadly to different disciplinary perspectives on MSP; and the need for crucial choices to be made to ensure that MSP does not become an illusion behind which other agendas lie.