After a stint in quarantine and home isolation, the new United States ambassador to New Zealand, Tom Udall, says he is excited to start building relationships and engaging with the country’s Government on issues such as climate change and the Indo-Pacific.
Udall, a former senator for New Mexico, has officially taken up his role after being appointed by US President Joe Biden in July. He presented his credentials to Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro on Wednesday.
Dressed in cowboy boots and a bolo tie complete with a large piece of turquoise, Udall began his first meeting with the media with a mihi.
He added that he was working hard to come to grips with both the Māori language and culture.
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“My role that I’ve been given by the president is not to come down here and tell people what to do – I’m here to work with them, to engage, to try to see where we share values,” he said emphasising that Americans share values such as freedom of speech and freedom to practise religion with New Zealanders.
“This president really believes that America is a Pacific nation,” added the 73-year-old, who has known Biden since he interned with him in the 1970s.
“America is committed with allies and friends and partners to make sure the Indo-Pacific region is a rules-based order.”
Both the US and China have shown increased interest in the region in recent years as China’s influence and reach has grown and the US has moved to counter it. A key concern is Chinese claims in the South China Sea, in part because of worries that if China controls the water, important trade routes could be disrupted or stopped.
Udall said he’d like to see a further strengthening of New Zealand and US defence ties, because working with friends and partners in the region was a preventive mechanism.
Udall retired from the US Senate in 2021, and has been described by the Los Angeles Times as a “long-time” friend of Biden who was a frontrunner for the major role of secretary of interior. He has been a longstanding advocate for climate change issues.
Udall said he saw climate change as an “existential threat” and saw opportunities for the US and New Zealand to engage around this, particularly because of its impact in the Pacific.
He added he was also interested in getting to learn more about New Zealand’s extensive green-energy sector and how it worked.
Udall had never been to New Zealand before but said he was impressed by what he had seen so far – an efficient MIQ system, isolation at the residence and a meeting with the country’s governor-general.
He said he was keen to build relationships with local Māori.
“I’m working on my te reo Māori,” he said.
Udall replaced former President Donald Trump’s ambassador, Scott Brown, who left the position in December 2020.
Brown controversially dodged a stay in managed isolation and quarantine when returning to New Zealand after a visit to the US in August 2020. He instead self-isolated at Camperdown.
Brown was a former Republican senator for Massachusetts, an on-air contributor to Fox News, and a rock’n’roll aficionado who filled the ambassador’s residence with guitars and music memorabilia.
Udall said a lot of friends had visited New Zealand and a few had even owned houses here, so he’d heard about the country’s mountains, landscape and diverse community.
“Those things are the things that I enjoy the most about New Mexico, so I think I am going to enjoy it a lot down here,” he said.