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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to deliver a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, April 27, 2016.KEVIN LAMARQUE/Reuters

Donald Trump threatened to get tough with freeloading allies and even tougher with America's adversaries in a major foreign-policy address Wednesday aimed at recasting the Republican front-runner as a statesman prepared to be president and sufficiently responsible to be entrusted with a finger on the nuclear trigger of the world's sole remaining superpower.

The populist billionaire denounced North American free trade, a linchpin of Canada-U.S. relations, as a "disaster" and vowed to force allies that chronically fail to meet NATO's spending targets – Canada, among them – to spend more or lose the guarantee of U.S. military protection.

In a 40-minute speech that accused President Barack Obama and his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton of weakening the United States, abandoning Israel and exposing Christians to genocide, Mr. Trump offered up a mixture of neo-isolationism, an evocation of great military might and a pragmatic willingness to tolerate repressive dictators as long as regional stability resulted.

To scattered and desultory applause, the New York property magnate running for president as a self-financing political outsider, boasted his negotiating skills honed over decades in business would deliver dividends in dealing with America's enemies as well as its friends.

But the speech – delivered at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington to The National Interest, a conservative group devoted to the nation state and pragmatic foreign policy – was also notable for what Mr. Trump omitted. There was no mention of the proposed wall with Mexico that he routinely vows will keep rapists and criminals out of the United States, nor any direct reference to banning all Muslims from entering the United States. Both have been key elements of his controversial campaign that has upended the Republican Party and made him the presumptive presidential candidate.

"The legacy of the Obama­-Clinton interventions [is] weakness, confusion and disarray, a mess," he said on Wednesday. He accused Mr. Obama of undermining the United States by first drawing, then abandoning a line in the sand in Syria. He said the air war in Libya to topple Moammar Gadhafi had made things worse and the Obama administration's abandonment of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak had led to the Muslim Brotherhood taking over in Cairo.

"We've made the Middle East more unstable and chaotic than ever before, we've left Christians subject to intense persecution and even genocide. We have done nothing to help the Christians, nothing, and we should always be ashamed for that, for that lack of action," he said.

Mr. Trump also pilloried former first lady Ms. Clinton – his likely Democratic opponent this fall – who famously suggested Mr. Obama was unfit to be commander-in-chief in 2008 with a pointed campaign ad showing a red phone ringing in the middle of the night. "Our ambassador was murdered and our secretary of state misled the nation," Mr. Trump said caustically, referring to the attack in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that killed four Americans. "And, by the way, she was not awake to take that call at three o'clock in the morning."

Mr. Trump vowed to eradicate the Islamic State with – unspecified – but overwhelming force. "I have a simple message for them. Their days are numbered. I won't tell them where and I won't tell them how."

He also warned against the enemy lurking within, saying Islamist terrorist cells have infiltrated the United States. "The struggle against radical Islam also takes place in our homeland. There are scores of recent migrants inside our borders charged with terrorism," he said.

"For every case known to the public, there are dozens and dozens more," he said, although it was not clear where that information came from. "We must stop importing extremism through senseless immigration policies," he added.

He promised to sit down with Vladimir Putin, one of the few foreign leaders who has praised Mr. Trump: The Russian President has called him a "very outstanding man, unquestionably talented." Mr. Trump said he would deliver "an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia" to end the "horrible cycle of hostility." Relations with Russia on Mr. Obama's watch have soured over Mr. Putin's military annexation of the Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and Syria.

If elected president, Mr. Trump said he would convene a NATO summit and bluntly tell the allies that they "must pay for the cost of this defence. If not, the United States must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves."

He made clear that "America first" would be the cornerstone of his foreign policy. "We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism," he said.

As for NAFTA, the North American free-trade agreement, which binds Canada, Mexico and the United States, Mr. Trump said NAFTA "has been a total disaster for the United States and has emptied our states, literally emptied our states, of our manufacturing and our jobs."

There was only a single passing mention of climate change – regarded by Mr. Obama and many others as the existential threat of the 21st century but widely derided as a false worry by many Republicans. "Our military is depleted and we're asking our generals and military leaders to worry about global warming," Mr. Trump said.