Stephen Harper accepted the World Statesman award with 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.
Mr. Harper delivered clear clarion calls on causes he holds dear – urging strong action to pressure Iran and the stalwart defence of Israel – but combined that message with an assessment of a murky world.
The Prime Minister went to Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria to collect his award on a day when he skipped the chance to address the United Nations seven blocks away. However, he delivered the kind of speech he might have made to the UN, dealing with hot global issues.
The fact that Mr. Harper came here, and not the UN, served to underline his assertion that countries like Canada have to ward against peer pressure to water down principles – and he took a shot to show it. Canadians, he said, have a consensus on the principles of their foreign policy, and want to work for the "wider interests of humanity."
"That is, of course, 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, no matter how self-evidently wrong-headed," he said.
Mr. Harper, who has made Canada's foreign policy more pointed while moving away from the country's past image as internationalist mediator and peacekeeper, was answering his critics by painting a picture of a world where not all share Canadians' devotion to fair play. He described glimmers of hope in values of freedom and human dignity that Canadians and like-minded countries hold dear, buffeted by rapid forces of change.
"Nations with a history of shared values, like our friends in Europe, are weighed down by debts they cannot seem to control, by entitlements they can no longer afford." Mr. Harper told a gathering of 800 in the Waldorf's opulent ballroom.
"Meanwhile, new powers are rising, whose commitments to our ideals are often neither firm nor clear."
His skeptical view of the Arab spring, seen by many as a democratic watershed a year ago, is justified, he suggested, referring to violent protests that have swept the region. "What appears to some a hopeful spring for democracy quickly becomes an angry summer of populism," he said.
The setting for his speech, the glitzy Waldorf ballroom, with a brass band in the balcony and a well-heeled black-tie crowd that included dignitaries and well-known figures like Henry Kissinger and NHL president Gary Bettman, demonstrated that the honour Mr. Harper was receiving was significant enough to draw a crowd of New York and Canadian notables.
The award, presented previously to leaders like Jean Chrétien, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and South Korea's Lee Myung-bak, is presented by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an organization founded by New York rabbi Arthur Schneier in 1965 to promote religious freedom.
Mr. Harper's pledge to open an Office of Religious Freedom is one point Mr. Schneier cited when the honour was first announced, but he also lauded the Prime Minister's unwavering stands, including support for Israel.
Mr. Harper made that a clear message here. On a day when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought a sketch of a bomb to the United Nations to illustrate the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, Mr. Harper echoed the warning – though noting he did not say it "to advocate war."
Iran, Mr. Harper said, is a "clear and present danger," not only because of its pursuit of nuclear weapons, support for terror or disregard for human rights, but "the combination of all these things with a truly malevolent ideology." Opposing Iran also means supporting Israel, because it is the state that is threatened, he argued – though he insisted that does not mean agreeing with all of Israel's policies, but refusing to "single out" the country for criticism.
Mr. Harper's selection for the World Statesman award has drawn criticism at home because of some of the approaches he touted – with many arguing he has turned his back on a Canadian culture of multi-nationalism, symbolized by his avoidance of the UN.
The last time he addressed the UN General Assembly was two years ago, when he was campaigning for a Canadian seat on the UN Security Council. But Canada lost that bid to Portugal, and a seat on the council in a period when it has grappled with high-profile issues like intervention in Libya and sanctions on Iran and Syria.
Mr. Harper travelled here for the award, and met with Haitian President Michel Martelly and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the margins of the UN session, where he will also meet Mr. Netanyahu on Friday. He did not join other leaders in addressing the body.
Dr. Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State who presented the award to Mr. Harper, pointed to Canada's efforts in the Afghan war and reconstruction, its skillful steering through the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. He said Mr. Harper has his own views and "the courage to affirm them even when they are not shared by all of the consensus that exist – and be proved correct by events."