For conservatives, Peter Collier’s poignant and insightful “Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick” is a bittersweet recollection of a time when their once-in-a-lifetime great president was in office, but even more memorably, when a vibrant coterie of intellectual superstars transformed the Republican Party. The country and the conservative movement reaped the benefits of a stellar group of foreign policy thinkers who sustained the vibrant intellectual atmosphere at the beginning of the Reagan years.

But Collier also references a split in foreign policy thought on the right between unabashed promoters of democracy around the world and those, like Kirkpatrick, who had second and third thoughts as to feasibility of democracy promotion undifferentiated by the culture, history and habits of the countries at issue. It is a timely subject given Syria, the chilled Arab Spring and the drumbeat sounding from the right and the left to curtail our defense spending.

More is at issue than a policy debate or effort to shape what the right hopes will be a Romney presidency. It is a moment, as in the Carter administration, when it is critical for conservative thinkers to, well, do some thinking and rethinking. What have we learned from the Arab Spring, the successful democratization of chunks of Central and South America, and China’s dubious undertaking to increase economic liberty while quashing political freedom?

Can democracy take root in the Middle East absent an Iraq-like operation? If secular, human rights-abiding institutions haven’t existed in a locale for centuries, how can they develop rapidly? Can they develop at all?

These aren’t easy questions, but they should be informed not only by the Reaganesque faith in democracy’s international appeal but by the hard facts of recent experience. After all, modern conservatives’ critique of the left both in domestic and foreign policy has been that liberals, contra Edmund Burke, ignored culture, essential human nature and the limited competence of centralized government.

There is far more unease and disagreement on the right about foreign policy than the left is aware of or the right is willing to acknowledge. Perhaps it is the fear of opening wounds that prevents a robust airing of these issues. But we are not speaking here of a binary choice between isolationism and interventionism. To paraphrase New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, there is a boulevard between intervening everywhere and nowhere. For those who think the United States is a force for good and for peace and stability in the world, it is critical to develop a nuanced, effective foreign policy for the 21st century.

Since I brought it up, I offer some basic principles:

First, hard power and soft power are inextricably linked, and the former does not come cheap. We need to cast into the historical wastebasket “defense spending by numbers.” What are our threats and what do we need to defend ourselves? That query rather than mathematical formula should dictate our defense expenditures.

Second, culture and history matter when it comes to promoting democracy and human rights. Is the locale at issue a nation-state rooted in common history, culture, language and/or monarchy or is it an artificial conglomerate, the result of a post-colonial border drawing that lacks a unifying identity? Democracy isn’t impossible in the latter, but it is often problematic and dogged by tribal, ethnic and religious loyalties.

Third, multilateral institutions in which non-democratic countries have a majority or a veto are worse than useless when it comes to these matters. There are historic bilateral and multilateral alliances and emerging democracies that can work cooperatively with the United States. But to delegate critical questions involving mass atrocities, democracy promotion and the potential use of military action to the United Nations is folly, and it is often an excuse for doing nothing.

Fourth, if we don’t, early in a crisis, make an effort to understand pro-democracy forces and/or come up with options that don’t involve military force, we will find ourselves down the road with the distasteful choice between military action and doing nothing. In an August 2011 piece in the Wall Street Journal, former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams listed a variety of non-military options to hasten Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s demise (e.g., “separate the Assad family and its closest cronies from the rest of the Alawite community”; press “the Syrian opposition — the traditional leadership inside the country — and the new groups ... to state with greater clarity their commitment to civil peace when the Assads are gone”; and “put more pressure on the Syrian business community). Had we diligently pursued those options, we might now not facing a choice between military action and accepting mass murder.

Fifth, in the Reagan era, with two notable exceptions (Grenada and Lebanon), we generally assisted indigenous groups battling against despotic regimes. Over time these efforts, especially in Central America, were remarkably successful. While military action may be needed, especially in cases where our strategic and humanitarian actions coincide, we should develop robust non-military options. These are long-term endeavors that must be pursued over time, often well in advance of or well after a regime change.

Sixth, when we go in militarily, there should be no mission confusion, and we should seek to decapitate the regime swiftly. How many Libyans died while we puttered around, tried to round up international support and then disclaimed interest in regime change? Likewise, deadlines and limitations on our involvement signal our unseriousness and make a definitive outcome less likely.

Seventh, conservatives should be honest about the limits of the bully pulpit. Even the best, most articulate and engaged commanders in chief will have a hard time selling multi-year wars. If we do undertake such actions, we cannot have a reticent leader. And frankly, even the best commanders in chief must be conscious of a democratic people’s limited patience for military action.

And finally, human rights must be an integral element in our dealings with repressive regimes not currently facing an uprising, whether friendly regimes (Bahrain) or adversarial (China). The perception that we don’t care about democracy and human rights demoralizes the opposition and emboldens the despots.

Some on the right will have other “lessons learned” or object to some of these principles. But the discussion should begin. In the Reagan years, you needed dozens of phone calls and a fax machine to organize a conservative foreign policy discussion. Now there are several flagship conservative publications and think tanks able to undertake an in-gathering of conservative hawks to begin thinking through some of the knotty issues.

The world is a different place since 9/11, and we should be wiser and more experienced concerning democracy and human rights. But if those who support a “freedom agenda” believe democracy and human rights are worth supporting and contribute to American security, then it is incumbent on them to think through these concerns, define principles that are sustainable and plow some ground in the event, as they fervently hope, that we have a new president in January.