Charging that "America cannot disengage from the world," Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on Thursday confronted critics who brand him an isolationist as he endorsed an American foreign policy that embraces war with limits.

The libertarian-leaning Republican is eyeing a 2016 presidential bid despite skepticism from GOP leaders over his worldview. Paul on Thursday described military action as necessary under certain conditions.

"America should and will fight wars when the consequences — intended and unintended — are worth the sacrifice," he said in a 20-minute speech shortly before accepting an award from the Center for the National Interest, a think tank founded by former President Richard Nixon. "America shouldn't fight wars where the best outcome is stalemate. America shouldn't fight wars when there is no plan for victory."

Paul has drawn sharp criticism from within his own party for favoring a smaller American footprint on the international stage. The first-term Kentucky senator has called for the end of all foreign aid and closing some U.S. military bases abroad.

Similar positions helped sink the presidential ambitions of his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul. That's a fate the younger Paul is working hard to avoid.

Polling suggests that a war-weary American public might respond well to Paul's reframing, even if his positions concern some of the Republican Party's most powerful donors and opinion leaders. New York Rep. Peter King has warned that a Paul presidency would be "disastrous" for the nation's interests and likened his views to the Republican Party's isolationist wing from the 1930s.

Paul earned a much warmer reception while facing a friendly audience Thursday night.

"I think I just heard Ronald Reagan speaking," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "We just heard tonight a great deal of common sense."

Over the past year, Paul has courted foreign policy leaders across the political spectrum. In Thursday's speech, he was trying to distance himself further from the isolationist label, staking out a stand of "conservative realism."

"The war on terror is not over, and America cannot disengage from the world," Paul said. "We need a foreign policy that recognizes our limits and preserves our might, a commonsense conservative realism of strength and action."