United States Ambassador to New Zealand Tom Udall enjoys some snorkelling at Muri Lagoon. Photo: United States Embassy/22121630
United States Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa Tom Udall is looking forward to immersing himself in all things to do with Pacific countries. He talks to Cook Islands News journalist Matthew Littlewood about his hopes and aspirations in the role.
Ambassador Udall arrives in the Cook Islands this week to torrential rain and yet
he couldn’t be happier. He’s just spent the past two days going on lagoon cruises,
swimming with turtles and generally getting to know the culture.
He’s also had the
serious business of sitting with Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown and his
Cabinet about furthering their diplomatic relationship. Recently, the United
States signalled its intention to recognise the Cook Islands as a sovereign
that I feel very good about. We’re very excited about this new chapter,” Udall
Udall says he’s
been impressed by Prime Minister Brown, particularly when it comes to his
approach to climate change issues.
“He’s been a real
leader in terms of climate change and the Pacific. I want to congratulate the
Cook Islands on becoming a leader in the Pacific,” he says.
“For the United
States, special envoy John Kerry is fulltime working all over the world on
climate change. He believes, and I do too, that climate change is an
existential moment for us as a people.”
Udall admits that
the United States had to “catch up” after the previous administration under
President Donald Trump exited from the Paris Climate Change Accord.
“We need to do
everything we can to move the ball forward. We need to do new things in terms
of national goals. We passed the biggest Resources and Appropriations bill
dedicated to climate infrastructure and assisting with adaptation. That shows
we’re dedicated to making the change,” he says.
everyone needs to work on the issue of sustainability.
“There is a lot of
common ground we can work on. Fisheries are very important to the Cook Islands
economy, for example. It’s something you want to work with, in protecting
fisheries. We need to find the right balance,” he says.
time studying all these issues and participating in international forums.”
Udall says he is
looking forward to the Pacific Islands Forum, which will be hosted by the Cook
Islands next year.
“As soon as I know
the date, I want to start visiting with all the officials and say, ‘this is
something important, and we want to see someone at a high level come here’,” he
A lifelong Democrat who has known President Joe Biden since the early 1970s, Udall
became a congressman in 1999, and then a senator in 2009 until his appointment
as Ambassador in 2021.
President Biden a friend and a very straight-shooting individual. What you see
is what you get. He’s a person who really cares,” Udall says.
His voting record
includes a number of environmental initiatives, and in September 2019, Udall
was one of eight senators to sign a bipartisan letter to congressional
leadership requesting full and lasting funding of the Land and Water
Conservation Act to aid national parks and public lands.
He also received a
“96 per cent” rating from the League of Conservation Voters for his efforts to
promote environmental legislation during his time in the Senate.
“I think we all
have a passion for the environment in the Pacific. People really care about it;
they’re in touch with the land,” Udall says.
“In New Zealand,
I’ve been all over the South Island and the North Island, I’ve visited many
national parks and reserves, but there’s a lot more to do. I want to go to Antarctica;
the United States sponsors 2000-3000 scientists who come through to Antarctica
every year. I’d also like to go to Stewart Island and see what they’ve been
Udall says he
doesn’t miss Washington, or the cut and thrust of political campaigning.
“When you have to
raise $15 million each political cycle, that takes a lot of time away from
policy development and actually meeting and listening to constituents,” he
“I think there
needs to be full transparency when it comes to political donations. If you’re
taking money from a mining company, or a billionaire, or from someone who does
not serve the interests of the people, then we should know about it.
“I was always in
favour of smaller donations. You’re going to be a lot better taking $10 each
from 500 individuals, rather than one person donating $5000.”
Udall says the
transition from politician to ambassador was pretty seamless. It was helped by
knowing his predecessor Scott Brown, a former Republican Senator who Udall
describes as a friend, and the professionalism of the embassy office.
“They told me
about the Cook Islands, about your way of life, and about what your values are,
particularly when it comes to the environment,” Udall says.
“But I’m always
Udall says part of
his role is to pay special attention to the indigenous populations of the
“In New Zealand, I
try to visit every marae. My Te Reo Māori is something I work on every day. I
write little notes to myself, and do my best to learn new words. One of my
favourite Te Reo Maori phrases is ‘Kaitiaki Taonga’, which is about being a
trustee of the environment,” he says.
says the United States’ interests in the Pacific have been ramped up over the
past few years.
“I think we have realised
the opportunities for growth in the region. One of the key things for the Cook
Islands was making sure your Prime Minister Mark Brown was present at President
Biden’s Pacific Summit,” he says.
“You have an
incredible community spirit here. There’s a sense of everyone wearing at least
a couple of hats. You might be a secretary or a politician or a policeman, but
you’re also involved with the local school, or with the rugby club or you’re
involved in non-profit organisations. Volunteerism is something close to my
“Doing your job
and making money is important, but it’s also important to give something back
to the community.”
Udall says he and his wife, who he jokingly
calls his “security attaché”, are looking forward to immersing themselves in
the Pacific over the next three years.
“If I had any
advice for someone in this role, it would be to learn to do really deep
listening. It’s something I’ve cultivated over my political career. One of the
ways to build consensus is to listen to all sides,” Udall says.
“I think deep
listening is something very special. We notice it in the Pacific Islands Forum.
People might come to the forum with all sorts of ideas, but they don’t go
anywhere without sitting down and listening.”