Clad in the cowboy boots and turquoise gemstone bolo tie of his home state, Tom Udall, Joe Biden’s longtime friend and pick as US ambassador, made a distinctly American impression as he addressed New Zealand’s press for the first time on Thursday.
Despite the departure from the usual diplomatic sartorial tastes, Udall represents a less controversial pick than his predecessor, outspoken Trump selection Scott Brown, who left New Zealand in December. Brown had been one of Trump’s first political backers, with a colourful – at times controversial – history in and out of politics.
Brown’s defence of the now-outlawed practice of waterboarding raised some eyebrows in New Zealand upon his selection. In 2017, US officials investigated complaints of inappropriate comments at a party during his inaugural visit to Samoa. Brown said he had been misinterpreted after telling other attendees they looked “beautiful” or “handsome”. Towards the end of his tenure, the ambassador made headlines when he used a private jet to avoid staying in a hotel as part of the country’s quarantine process and was instead permitted to quarantine at home.
Udall says he met Biden as an intern in 1973, and the president had been “a good friend ever since”. The former senator for New Mexico will have been selected in part for his credentials working on the “existential” climate crisis and with indigenous nations, and said those would be two of his highest priorities in the role. Another focus for the ambassador will be on shoring up alliances in the Pacific, as the US looks to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
“Being a Pacific nation, America is committed with allies and friends and partners to make sure that the Indo Pacific region is a rules-based order,” Udall said. “What [that] means when you get down into the specifics, we’ll see as we go along.”
Udall has stepped into the role at a time of slight uncertainty in the two countries’ relationship. When the Aukus security pact between Australia, the UK and the US was announced in September, New Zealand was absent – and critics of the deal said New Zealand was “left out of the loop”. Experts said the deal more starkly illustrated existing differences between the country and its traditional security partners.
On Thursday, Udall sought to assuage concerns that New Zealand could be set adrift on security alliances, saying the two countries’ “security cooperation is the best and broadest that it has been in decades”.
Asked directly about Aukus, Udall responded: “I think it’s fair to say that nobody’s been sidelined.”
“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 … how do we all move forward and protect our democracies, that’s why we talk about the Indo Pacific region.”
His other priorities would be climate change, building relationships with the indigenous community, and learning some te reo [Māori language], he said.
“I would start with climate change and the extinction crisis that we’re seeing, which are existential threats, even more so here in the Pacific island nations,” he said.
“What I’m going to try to do is just develop a very good working relationship … with Māori and with the indigenous people,” he said. “I’m working on my te reo Māori.”