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Stephen Harper: Statesman of the Year?

On Thursday September 27th, while most of his colleagues were across town taking part in the opening of the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was at Manhattan’s opulent Waldorf Astoria Hotel accepting an award for “World’s Statesman of the Year” from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.

The award was presented by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who characterized Harper as a leader who has not only his own views but also “the courage to affirm them even when they are not shared by all of the consensuses that exist.” Another supporter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, characterized Harper as “a great champion of freedom,” and a “real statesman.”

According to the foundation, Harper was honoured for his unwavering support of Israel, tough stance on Iran, and creation of an Office of Religious Freedom (which will be housed in the Department of Foreign Affairs but has yet to take any tangible form).

Past recipients of the award include former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Strong support for Israel, and criticism of Iran have come to be characteristic features of Canadian foreign policy in the Harper era. A few weeks ago Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran, a regime Harper has characterized as being possessed by a “fanatically religious worldview.” As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the opening of the General Assembly Canadian diplomats walked out, in what’s become an annual tradition. The justification, according to Foreign Minister John Baird, because Canada doesn’t “want to be associated in any way, shape or form with the ramblings of an anti-Semitic hate monger.”

In accepting his award Harper outlined his idea of principled statesmanship as “not the same thing as trying to court every dictator with a vote at the United Nations, or just going along with every international consensus.” The speech itself was an articulation of how Harper sees the world. Campbell Clark writing in the Globe and Mail, described it as, “a speech offering his stark view of an uncertain world, where a principled Canada’s closest friends face troubled times, where rising powers often don’t share ‘our ideals,’ where the Arab spring is becoming ‘angry summer,’ and where a few ‘malevolent’ regimes threaten havoc.”

Kissinger and Netanyahu’s praises aside, Harper’s ascension to “statesman of the year” comes at an unusual, or at the very least ironic time. Critics have charged him with abandoning Canada’s historic commitment to multilateralism, and participation in organizations like the UN. That he made the trip to New York and even gave a speech—one very similar to those given by leaders at the General Assembly—was tacit admission and further proof that Harper neither respects nor values the organization, his detractors charge.

While in New York accepting an award for his foreign policy brilliance, back in Canada Harper was being criticized for snubbing the UN, and leaving Foreign Minister John Baird to address the General Assembly instead of making the four-minute drive from the Waldorf Astoria to do it himself. Paul Dewar, foreign affairs critic for the official opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) charged, “his responsibility as Prime Minister—one of his responsibilities—is to go to the UN to explain what our foreign policy is.”

For his part, Harper defended his decision not to attend, insisting that it’s not standard procedure for the Canadian Prime Minister to make the address his or herself. In seven years in power, Harper has addressed the gathered assembly only twice, once in 2006 and more recently in 2010 when Canada was campaigning for a seat on the Security Council (a campaign it lost to Portugal). However, this is the first time he, or any Canadian Prime Minister for that matter, has been in New York—literally walking distance—from the opening of the General Assembly and not addressed the body in person. President Obama, by comparison, has given a speech every year since he was elected.

The award comes in a year where the Harper government has delivered devastating cutbacks in both diplomacy and aid. The most recent federal budget prescribed $170 million in cuts for the Department of Foreign Affairs and $377 million to the Canadian International Development Agency. Aside from coming at the cost of aid to a number of developing countries, the cuts are expected to prompt Canada’s to retreat from a number of multilateral forums in which it has normally participated.