More Top Stories


Nines in Paradise thrills

9 January 2024


The year in sports 2023

31 December 2023


2023 year in review

31 December 2023

Rugby league

Moana target 2025 World Cup

11 November 2022

A passion for the Pacific

Saturday 17 December 2022 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Local, National, Politics


A passion for the Pacific
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 state.

“It’s something that I feel very good about. We’re very excited about this new chapter,” Udall says.

Udall says he’s been impressed by Prime Minister Brown, particularly when it comes to his approach to climate change issues.

United States Ambassador to New Zealand Tom Udall meets Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown. Photo: United States Embassy/22121632
United States Ambassador to New Zealand Tom Udall meets Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown. Photo: United States Embassy/22121632

“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.

Udall 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.

“We’re spending time studying all these issues and participating in international forums.”

Tom Udall says he’s looking forward to immersing himself in the Pacific culture and lifestyle.  Photo: United States Embassy/22121631
Tom Udall says he’s looking forward to immersing himself in the Pacific culture and lifestyle. Photo: United States Embassy/22121631

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 says.

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.

“I consider 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 doing there.”

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 says.

“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 learning.”

Udall says part of his role is to pay special attention to the indigenous populations of the Pacific.

“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.

Udall 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 heart.

“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.”