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Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the Millennium Development Goals Summit at United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 21, 2010.EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP / Getty Images

The humiliating rejection of Canada's bid to win a seat at the United Nations Security Council Tuesday presents Stephen Harper with a choice: acknowledge this rebuke from the global community and rethink how his government presents Canada to the world, or ignore it and accept an outsider status unique in this country's history.

In the months leading up to the vote, the Prime Minister and his advisers seemed confident about their chances, as though its weighty history at One Dag Hammarskjold Plaza would carry the day. So heavily was Canada favoured to win one of two slots available on the Security Council that Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon was present in the General Assembly while 192 nations cast their secret ballots, hoping for the two-thirds of the vote it needed to win.

Instead, Canada placed third in the first round, behind Germany and Portugal, with Germany winning the first seat, as expected. In the second round, votes fled to Portugal, which was so far ahead that Canada withdrew in the face of certain defeat.

"It can only be interpreted as a slight to Canada by the international community," said Yves Fortier, who was Canadian ambassador to the UN from 1988 to 1991. He described "this lamentable result" as "a reflection of things that Canada has done or not done that a majority of nations" disapprove of.

Such a signal rejection marks not only a dark day in the annals of Canada's foreign policy; it reveals the price minority government, with its obsession with domestic affairs, has imposed on a country that no longer plays its traditional role of peacekeeper and champion of human rights on the international stage.

So what did the government do or not do to lose this crucial vote? According to close observers, many things. The Conservative government's increasingly unflinching support for Israel - even as members prepared to vote, International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan announced new trade talks from Tel Aviv - cost it support in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world.

The government's perceived indifference to Southeast Asia cost votes in that region, while cutting back on the number of African nations receiving aid undermined support on that continent. Canada's foot-dragging in creating a carbon market played heavily against it among numerous small island nations that perceive melting icecaps and rising sea levels as a mortal threat.

Nonetheless, Canada had strong support from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, where it is "still highly regarded in spite of a more conservative government," said one ambassador from the region.

But Portugal, despite its battered economy, emerged as a formidable campaigner, said one ambassador who watched the election closely. It benefited from a talented representative in New York, strong ties in Africa and the ability to appeal to many member states as a fellow small country. European nations voted en masse for Portugal, including those hoping for future entry into the European Union. And Portuguese-speaking Brazil went to bat for the mother country.

As Portugal pitched its friend-of-the-little-guy message, Canada portrayed itself as a model global citizen, with a strong track record in peacekeeping missions, diplomatic work and multilateral co-operation. But such campaigns are not won on international reputation alone: Aggressive "vote swapping" - where countries trade support in the Security Council election for backing in other forums - is seen as essential for victory.

The election process is notoriously unpredictable. Nations have been known to promise their support to one candidate only to switch allegiance in the final vote. A former Australian ambassador to the UN called it the "rotten lying bastards" phenomenon after his country lost a bid for a seat on the Security Council in 1996.

Like Australia, Canada will now have to wait a decade or more before it can expect to mount another campaign for a Security Council seat.

On Tuesday, after receiving 114 votes in the first round, Canada saw its support collapse to just 78 votes in the second. It's an unwritten rule at the UN, diplomats said, that commitments are only valid through the first round of voting, which means the second can demonstrate the real strength of a country's backing.

More than anything, Canada's own diminished role within the UN and the international community may have proven self-defeating, despite the fervent lobbying of Mr. Cannon and two appearances by Mr. Harper before the General Assembly.

Only a decade ago, Canada had the reputation as a UN enthusiast, leading the campaign to ban land mines, helping to establish the International Criminal Court, crafting the Right to Protect doctrine on international intervention in states that could or would not protect their citizens.

But the country's profile at the UN is a shadow of its former self. One consequence of a succession of minority governments is that foreign policy becomes hostage to domestic politics. Ministers are afraid to travel, for fear of missing a vote of confidence, as the country turns inward, searching for stability.

Louise Fréchette, a former deputy secretary-general at the UN, said when she was in New York some months ago talking with foreign-policy experts, "the question was: Where is Canada?"

Mr. Harper initially had little interest in, or time for, foreign intrigues, though that has changed as he's grown more confident in the job, championing Canada's banking system and seeking increasing ties to China and India. Despite his recent Damascene conversion on foreign policy, conservative suspicions of the UN's purpose and effectiveness, which led to Canada delaying its campaign for the seat until long after Germany and Portugal had jumped in, were also noticed in New York.

"The primary explanation for this fiasco - and I don't think it's too strong a word - would have to be that the Harper government made the decision to campaign seriously very late in the day," said Ramesh Thakur, a political-science professor at the University of Waterloo and a former UN official. "Last-minute conversions are not very persuasive."

The vote had barely concluded when the finger-pointing began. Mr. Cannon, speaking in New York later Tuesday, laid the blame squarely on comments last month by Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff that Canada did not deserve the seat as a result of the government's policies. "We ran a strong campaign,"Mr. Cannon said. "Unfortunately, back home in Canada, the leader of the opposition determined that Canada did not speak with one voice."

Both Mr. Fortier and Ms. Fréchette said they were certain Mr. Ignatieff's comments would have had no impact on the outcome.

Roland Paris, a specialist in international relations at the University of Ottawa, said it was "regrettable" that the government would seek to blame the opposition for this debacle. "They have no one to blame but themselves," he said.

Canada remains an important ally in Afghanistan, a key donor in Haiti, a respected member of a gaggle of international organizations, from APEC to NATO. But in the UN deliberations over the next two years - on the future of Afghanistan, on confronting Iran's nuclear ambitions, on whatever global emergencies may arrive - Canada will not have a seat at the Security Council table.

Six times in the past we asked for a seat; six times we were welcomed. This time, we were asked to step aside. There's no good way to put that.

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