NEW YORK, N.Y. - Canada suffered its second diplomatic black eye in as many days Tuesday as it withdrew in defeat from a bid to rejoin the mighty United Nations Security Council — the first time in the powerful panel's 64-year history that the country has failed to secure a seat.
Canada’s UN Ambassador John McNee made the announcement after it became clear that Portugal was well on its way to defeating Canada to claim the second of two available spots in the UN's most exclusive and coveted club. Germany won the first seat on the first ballot.
The development represented a significant embarrassment to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who travelled to New York last month to plead Canada's case.
But despite recent rumblings among member nations about Canada's decidedly Israel-friendly foreign policy, a shortage of aid to Africa and Harper's perceived indifference to the UN, the federal Conservative government almost immediately laid the blame for the loss at the feet of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon insisted that Ignatieff's comments last month questioning whether Canada had earned a spot on the council almost single-handedly put the boots to Canada's hopes. Cannon denied any knowledge that other issues might have played a role.
"I do not think that this is a repudiation of Canada's foreign policy," he told a news conference.
"Canada ran a campaign based on principle; we ran a strong campaign. Unfortunately, back home in Canada, the leader of the opposition determined that Canada does not speak with one voice."
Several ambassadors who emerged from the vote made no mention of Ignatieff's remarks; one had never even heard of him.
Instead, African ambassadors, in particular, pointed to a series of Canadian stances on issues ranging from African debt relief to the Conservative government cutting funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and accusing it of having terrorist links.
"In my discussions with African ambassadors ... that issue has not been brought to my attention, nor have the other issues been brought to my attention," Cannon said when asked about those concerns.
"We can speculate till tomorrow but I can't give you any definite responses to what the real issue was, but I can say that Michael Ignatieff's statements hurt us."
Ignatieff, for his part, dismissed the criticism as little more than deflecting blame, and urged the federal government to accept responsibility for the loss.
"The government of Canada is the government of Canada; it's their responsibility to win or lose that vote, so any other statement isn't serious," Ignatieff told a news conference in Ottawa.
"Don't play this blame-game stuff with Canadians. It's an insult to their intelligence."
The defeat proves the Tories have a lot of work to do on foreign relations, he added.
"This actually involves the whole record of this government in terms of international relations. We believe that this government has neglected its UN relations, and has just been doing catch-up, but it's too late, and they have paid the price. Now, it's up to them to take responsibility."
Dimitri Soudas, communications director for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, wasted little time in blaming the Liberal leader for the defeat in an interview mere minutes after Canada conceded victory to Portugal.
"People outside of Canada were saying, 'Well, Germany and Portugal have a united front, their opposition and their governments seem to be fully, 100 per cent behind this bid,'" Soudas said.
"We had an opposition leader that opposed Canada and clearly was not in it for Canada on this one."
Soudas allowed that there were other factors. He said the European Union and EU-aspiring countries voted as a block for Germany and Portugal. He also said that some of the commitments made to support Canada did not materialize in the balloting.
But he denied suggestions that the Harper government's unabashed support for Israel may have cost Canada support from Arab countries.
Canada first joined the UN Security Council in 1948, two years after its inception, and held a seat for a two-year term five more times, most recently in 1999-2000.
Ignatieff rattled off a litany of alleged foreign policy failings that he said contributed to Canada's failure to secure a seat this time, including reneging on the Kyoto climate change accord, turning its back on Africa, freezing foreign aid and refusing to send peacekeepers to the Congo.
And he scoffed openly at the notion that the words of an opposition leader would hold more sway with foreign diplomats than the actions of the prime minister.
"I'd be flattered if it weren't so ridiculous," Ignatieff said.
"Remember the historic dimensions of this defeat. This is the first time in 62 years we have not secured a seat on the Security Council. The responsibility for this lies squarely and exclusively with the Harper government and any other proposition is just too ridiculous to entertain."
The developments became something of a social media phenomenon on Tuesday. "Security Council" became the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter in Canada for part of the day, and even federal government employees expressed a belief that Canada didn't deserve the spot.
"Reason triumphed," one wrote on a Facebook page.
"My condolences to all my colleagues who worked to the bone on this file for the last four years. We got what we deserve. This has nothing to do with you. As a country, we got what we deserve."
In the weeks before Tuesday's voting, as the merits of the Security Council bid were being debated in the House of Commons, Ignatieff made it clear he didn't believe Canada deserved to sit there.
"This is a government that for four years has basically ignored the United Nations and now is suddenly showing up saying, 'Hey, put us on the council,'" Ignatieff said following a Liberal caucus meeting last month.
"Don't mistake me. I know how important it is for Canada to get a seat on the Security Council, but Canadians have to ask a tough question: Has this government earned that place? We're not convinced it has."
On Tuesday, Ignatieff called it "a sad day for Canada," but refused to take back or express regret for his earlier comments. He did say, however, that Canada deserved a seat on the council.
Palestine's ambassador to the UN was fittingly diplomatic on the Israel question.
"There's a slight difference between the voting record, for example, of Germany and Canada, but nevertheless we consider Canada a very close friend," Riyad Mansour said.
One Canadian observer said the Conservatives need to look no further than Harper himself for what went wrong at the United Nations.
"It is a reflection not so much on Canada as on the Harper government," said historian Robert Bothwell, an expert on foreign relations at the University of Toronto.
"This is, after all, the prime minister who showed his contempt for the UN by very publicly skipping a session and going to a Tim Hortons to be photographed."
Quipped Bothwell: "Perhaps Harper can get a seat on the Tim Hortons security council."
Last September, Soudas defended Harper's absence from the UN's nuclear proliferation and climate change summit, saying: "Nothing takes precedence over the economy." But Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said that decision has come back to haunt the Tories.
"Governments make choices," Rae said. "Mr. Harper chose to have a donut and a double double rather than speak to the General Assembly. Eventually that comes home."
The result of Tuesday's vote was the second diplomatic disappointment for Canada in as many days, and the pair of them together lend vigour to the suggestion that Canada has made few friends in the Middle East of late.
On Monday, a military plane carrying Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk was denied permission to land in the United Arab Emirates, the culmination of a long-standing dispute linked to failed negotiations to expand aviation links between the two countries.
That dispute also means Canada will be forced to pull up stakes at its formerly secret military base near Dubai, a vital junction in the supply and logistics route to the country's ongoing military efforts in Afghanistan.
"This is a story of incompetence," Ignatieff said when asked about the UAE controversy and what he called the "absurd spectacle" of the government plane being redirected.
"There are a whole series of irritants — visas, landing slots, base rights — there was a package of issues that Canada should have negotiated in good faith and taken these people seriously. The UAE is a very important strategic partner to Canada, it's in a very important part of the world, and for a variety of reasons that come down to incompetence, the government didn't take them seriously."
Soudas, however, expressed doubt that the dispute with Dubai had any bearing on the outcome of the vote. One senior government official said Canada actually got "a good chunk" of the vote from the Arab countries.
Soudas said Ignatieff's accusation that the Harper government has ignored the United Nations is "false."
"It's a long-standing policy that outside of our borders, we all present a united front and in this case Mr. Ignatieff chose to oppose Canada. . . Once again it shows that Mr. Ignatieff, quite frankly, does not view these issues through the prism of what's best for Canada. He views them through the prism of what's best for him."
Three other two-year terms on the UN’s most powerful body went uncontested to South Africa, India and Colombia.
Germany, Portugal and Canada have all been on the council previously — Germany most recently in 2003-2004, Canada in 1999-2000 and Portugal in 1997-98.
The five new non-permanent council members replace Austria, Japan, Mexico, Turkey and Uganda, whose terms end on Dec. 31. The five members elected last year — Bosnia, Brazil, Gabon, Lebanon and Nigeria — will remain on the council until the end of 2011.
Council members are supposed to be chosen on the basis of their contributions to international peace and security, and all three have highlighted their contributions to UN peacekeeping. Canada made particular mention of its involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
Ignatieff rattled off a litany of the Harper government's alleged foreign policy failings that contributed to the failure to secure a Security Council seat, including reneging on the Kyoto climate change accord, turning its back on Africa, freezing foreign aid and refusing to send peacekeepers to the Congo.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae added that Harper is paying the price for choosing to show up at a Tim Horton's opening last year rather than speak at the UN.
"Governments make choices. Mr. Harper chose to have a donut and a double double rather than speak to the General Assembly. Eventually that comes home."
Rae also countered the government's suggestion that it didn't barter away Canada's principles in order to win the Security Council seat. The implication of that argument, he said, is that the Harperites are "the only moral guys on the block" and all other Canadian governments sold out to win a seat in the past.
"I think that's just a totally fatuous argument to make on this day."
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar similarly scoffed at the government's attempt to blame Ignatieff.
"It took a lot of work for this government to undermine our credibility to the extent that we'd lose this seat. If you will, they managed to grab defeat from the jaws of victory," he said.
"What they're going to do and they've already done is blame everyone else. Well, on this one, there's no one else to blame."
Dewar doubted the government really wanted opposition support for Canada's bid in any event. He said he offered to go to the UN with Peter Kent, minister of state for the Americas, to make the case for Canada on the Security Council. A trip was arranged but in the end he was told he wasn't needed and Kent went to the UN alone.