In a speech salted with reminders about Canada's partnership with the United States and other "like-minded" nations, Harper told a black-tie crowd he was accepting the honour not for his own qualities, but "on behalf of the unique and magnificent country I have the privilege of leading."
Canadians, he said, are "fiercely proud" of having a reputation of living in a peaceful and culturally diverse country that boasts a competitive economy.
The Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which organized the award, campaigns for religious freedom and human rights. The group says its World Statesman Award is meant to honour “heads of state who have exemplified their commitment to freedom, human rights, peace, and respect for religious and ethnic diversity, and endeavor to advance these essential democratic values on the international scene.”
Previous recipients include former prime minister Jean Chrétien, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and former British prime minister Gordon Brown.
Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, himself a 1999 World Statesmen of the Year awardee, gave a glowing introduction to the prime minister. He characterized Harper as a bold global leader with sharp instincts, and as a politician who stands by his convictions.
"Prime Minister Harper has played a very important role by developing his own views, having the courage to affirm them, even when they are not shared by all the consensuses that exist, and being proved correct by events," Kissinger said.
Taking to the stage, Harper told Kissinger he was a longtime admirer of the U.S. Nobel laureate.
During his acceptance speech, Harper praised the strong bilateral ties Canada has enjoyed with America, "the best neighbour any nation could possibly have," and also offered his condolences following the recent anti-U.S. riots at embassies in the Middle East and North Africa.
He condemned Iran for its record of human-rights abuses and expressed concern over the Islamic republic's "malevolent ideology."
"It is important to state that whatever Israel's shortcomings, neither its existence nor its policies are responsible for the pathologies present In that part of the world," he said.
But while Harper was being honoured in the U.S., he was facing criticism at home. Opposition politicians say if Harper truly was a statesman, he'd make time during his trip to New York to speak at the United Nations.
World leaders have been addressing the UN General Assembly this week. Everyone from U.S. President Barack Obama to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken the podium to address the world. But when Canada’s turn to speak comes up, Harper won’t be there.
The job of representing Canada will fall to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
The prime minister has only spoken to the General Assembly twice since taking office in 2006. To the opposition, it’s a clear sign the prime minister simply doesn’t like the UN.
"He’s going to New York to receive an award. That's nice. I'm happy for him," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar.
"But his responsibility as a prime minister — one of his responsibilities — is to go to the UN to explain what our foreign policy is. Particularly now. We have no shortage of issues to deal with."
Dewar cites the violence in Syria and the ongoing tensions over Iran’s nuclear program as two issues Harper should be weighing in on. Baird says he’ll address both issues when he speaks to the General Assembly, and rejects any suggestion his government harbours any grudge against the UN.
“We’re the seventh biggest contributor to the United Nations,” Baird said.
He quickly added that the government “may have issues from time to time with certain decisions” taken by the UN.
The UN has at times had its own issues with Canada. The Harper government suffered a humiliating defeat at the UN in 2010 when it lost its bid for a seat on the Security Council. This week, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child scolded Canada over several issues including income inequality.
While in New York, Harper will be meeting with a small number of world leaders. On Thursday, he held talks with Haitian President Michel Martelly.
He's also scheduled to meet with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.