Tom Udall is not done serving his country.
The onetime U.S. senator, U.S. representative and state attorney general was nominated last week by President Joe Biden to become the nation’s ambassador to New Zealand and the Independent State of Samoa.
After retiring from the Senate following two terms, Udall won’t be relaxing at home in New Mexico with his wife, Jill Cooper. Instead, he’ll be taking his considerable knowledge and expertise to a corner of the world where every bit of his skill will be needed.
The challenges facing the U.S. — whether climate change, COVID-19 and the often difficult relationship with China — all play out in the Indo-Pacific, where New Zealand is one of the United States’ closest partners.
While Udall was best known in the Senate for his work protecting the environment and as a champion of public lands, he also served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, focusing on policies that promoted democracy, international development and conservation.
He could be bipartisan in his criticism, advocating strongly for the role of Congress in checking U.S. interventions abroad whether the president was a Democrat or Republican.
As a congressman, he was a powerful voice for staying true to the best of U.S. ideals. Not all his stances were easy. He voted against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act at a time when few elected officials dared to speak out against unwise intervention abroad and spying on U.S. citizens at home.
Now, as the U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, Udall will be charged with helping build strong regional alliances to present a united front to limit growing Chinese influence.
On everything from unfair trade practices to sanctions or to the crackdown in Hong Kong, many issues remain to be resolved between China and the United States. Biden has called China the key foreign policy challenge of his administration. As ambassador, Udall will be charged with creating stronger bonds with allies and working on the practical issue of accelerating vaccine production to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
First comes Senate confirmation, which seems virtually assured, given Udall’s tenure in Congress and his continued ability to produce bipartisan legislation even as the Senate became more gridlocked. In his last term, Udall and others helped secure permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund as part of the Great American Outdoors Act — those dollars will be crucial in acquiring new public lands while maintaining those the nation has. He did so by creating alliances, just as he will have to do as an ambassador.
His skill at building coalitions will be crucial. Unlike many in public life today, Udall understands the strength of compromise and cooperation. It’s been a trademark of his service throughout his career.
As he said last year in an interview with The New Mexican: “We work much better at achieving national goals and international goals if we’re doing it cooperatively, collaboratively, in a bipartisan way.”
Count on Udall to take that attitude with him across the globe as he begins another chapter in a lifetime of service.