UNITED NATIONS — John William Ashe’s father lived to see him graduate with advanced degrees, but he left the career diplomat with sobering words.
“He said to me, now that he has seen me graduate with a Ph.D., he can die,” Ashe remembers.
Three months later, Arnold Ashe, a retired St. John’s police officer in Antigua and Barbuda, died of prostate cancer.
“At the time, I thought he was pulling my leg,” Ashe said. “I wish I had given it more thought. It’s a serious regret, actually.”
Perhaps it wouldn’t shock the elder Ashe to know the Caribbean Community has high hopes for his son, Antigua and Barbuda’s permanent representative to the United Nations and the new president of the General Assembly’s 68th session, which began hearing from world leaders this week.
Ashe, 59, came to the U.N. nearly 25 years ago, with an impressive science background, and distinguished himself as an expert negotiator on sustainable development and climate issues.
Ashe chose “Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage!” as the working theme of his year-long presidency. Should the term go as planned, his colleagues and friends believe he’ll have set the stage for a more prominent future in global politics, one his father probably could not have imagined.
“I’m wondering what it might have been like, if this year was the year when it fell to Latin America and the Caribbean to have a Secretary-General,” said veteran diplomat Noel Sinclair, former Caricom ambassador to the U.N. and now Ashe’s chief of staff.
There was unanimous support among the regions 33 members for his presidential nomination in June. He was praised then for having “a mix of qualities that you would have associated with the very top of the organization,” said Sinclair.
“As far as we’re concerned, he’s one of the environmental experts of the world today,” said Joseph John, a close friend and surgeon in St. John’s. “We’re all pleased that his colleagues in the United Nations recognize that.
“It can’t be easy for a small island representative to attain those kinds of heights laterally in the United Nations,” John added.
Ashe was as modest in setting goals for the 68th session as he is in assessing his time at the U.N.
“There is an attraction to do lots and lots of stuff,” Ashe said. “There is also, equally, the attraction of doing a few things that could make a difference. I chose a lighter path.”
Over the next year, the new president will convene three high-level conferences, including a special event that was held Wednesday around the U.N.’s ambitious poverty eradication agenda, known as the Millennium Development Goals.
Ashe also plans for three thematic debates, including one on development that covers water, sanitation and sustainable energy.
But even a light agenda can be impacted by “dozens and dozens” of items that roll over from previous years, Ashe says. In the 68th session, for example, a debate over reform of the U.N. Security Council will continue.
Members expect Ashe will make progress toward expanding the number of permanent seats with veto power and non-permanent seats on the council. However, a final decision by the General Assembly isn’t expected until the 70th session.
“Come Sept. 15, 2014, I would simply like people to say that the president of the General Assembly for the 68th session did make a difference, he did get things done,” Ashe said.
Colleagues and friends have described Ashe as disciplined and commanding, with a talent for making friends in settings where consensus is difficult.
“He was always a very particular guy,” said Errol Cort, a college friend and the minister of National Security, Immigration and Labor for Antigua and Barbuda.
“His bed needed to be made up in a particular way, and his sheets were always well prim and proper,” Cort remembers of the apartment they shared as undergrads at Canada’s St. Mary’s University in the late 1970s.
“That’s not to say he’s a prude,” said John, also a college friend who shares Cort’s view of Ashe. “We certainly had more than enough fun. He’s a guy who, if he’s backing you, you feel like you really have someone in your corner.”
In July, during a biannual U.N.-Caricom meeting, the Secretary-General called Ashe’s election a clear sign that the Caribbean Community’s profile at the U.N. was on the rise.
“He had been the ‘go-to person’ when discussions had broken down (during) the 2002 Summit for Social Development and the Rio+20 (climate change) negotiations,” Ban said.
Ashe’s arrival at the U.N. was a “happy accident.” He’d returned home to St. John’s after 11 uninterrupted years of university and after having earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering in 1989 from the University of Pennsylvania.
It was Lester Bird, a former prime minster and son of national hero Vere Bird, who called him into the foreign service.
“Without giving it much thought, I said yes, because I had seen (the job) as a gap year,” Ashe said.
Attending a U.N. meeting on climate change sold him on a career in diplomacy because of the prospects of applying his science background, even though he was “green to the politics.”
“One year led to another and another. So, med school is still on hold. It’s some time in the future,” he joked.
Over the past 25 years, Ashe has held leadership roles in more than 40 U.N. agencies and organizations, including as his country’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization.
Born in St. John’s to Arnold and Beryl Ashe, both deceased, John is one of seven siblings. He met his wife, environmentalist Anilla Cherian, at a U.N. conference in Nairobi, Kenya and the two married in New York.
“I would say she knows more about sustainable development than I do,” Ashe said of Cherian, who has consulted for a number of U.N. agencies.
Their sons, a 16- and 13-year-old, have an inkling of the importance of their dad’s new role, Ashe said. But the boys only joined him for the pomp and circumstance on one day — when President Barack Obama spoke on Tuesday.
“The older one is a huge fan of Obama,” Ashe said smiling.