Secretary Blinken speaks from behind a lectern with the flags of the United States and Tonga behind him. Tonga's Crown Prince Tupouto'a 'Ulukalala and Crown Princess Sinaitakala are seated in chairs on stage. People in the audience are watching the dedication of the new U.S. embassy in Tonga, in Nuku'alofa

As part of Secretary Blinken’s Modernization Agenda, the State Department has been focused on ensuring that our workforce and presence around the world are fit for purpose to meet the challenges of diplomacy in the 21st century.  Vital to these efforts has been expanding American diplomacy in places where we have had little presence or no presence.  In a series of three DipNotes, we will speak with leaders at several of our newest embassies in the region.

Brad poses for a photo near plants wearing a kahoa, which is much like a Hawaiian lei.
At most official events, dignitaries receive “kahoas”, which are much like Hawaiian leis. Each one is unique and Brad always takes a photo for his Instagram account as a digital scrapbook. [Photo by Brad Coley]
Embassy Nuku‘alofa Chargé d’affaires Brad Coley   

Brad Coley is currently serving as the chargé d’affaires at one of the world’s newest U.S. embassies:  Embassy Nuku‘alofa in the Kingdom of Tonga.  Brad previously served overseas in our embassies in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; London, United Kingdom; and Conakry, Guinea.  He has also worked in Washington, D.C., in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the Foreign Service Institute, and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

The view from the U.S. Embassy in Tonga looking over a tropical rain storm. There are dark clouds gathering over buildings.
The view from the U.S. Embassy in Tonga looking over a tropical rainstorm. [Photo by Brad Coley]

Opening a New Embassy

Realizing such an important tangible symbol of the U.S.-Tonga partnership with the opening of an embassy is a unique opportunity.  However, there are many challenges, and Brad is currently the only resident U.S. diplomat.  He notes that “it can be a bit of a challenge to be the very first of anything.  Good communication with colleagues in Washington, D.C. is critical.  Helpfully, my overseas tours have prepared me well to rely on myself in the middle of the Blue Pacific as the first ‘permanent’ American employee at Embassy Nuku‘alofa.  Ambassador Alex Laskaris was my second ambassador during my first tour in Conakry, Guinea, and he often said that in the Foreign Service, ‘nothing is above you, and nothing is beneath you.’  I try to live out that saying every day, and oftentimes the work makes it very easy to do just that!”

Secretary Blinken, Tonga's Crown Prince Tupouto'a 'Ulukalala, Crown Princess Sinaitakala, and Ambassador Marie Damour at the dedication of the new U.S. embassy in Tonga, in Nuku'alofa. Ambassador Damour holds a flag and a U.S. military officer salutes.
Secretary Blinken, Tonga’s Crown Prince Tupouto’a ‘Ulukalala, Crown Princess Sinaitakala, and Ambassador Marie Damour at the dedication of the new U.S. embassy in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. [State Department photo]

The Opening of Embassy Nuku‘alofa:  A Symbol of Renewal in the U.S-Tonga Relationship and Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific

The top priority of the State Department is the safety and security of U.S. citizens.  As soon as we opened Embassy Nukuʻalofa, the embassy began hosting regular visits from our consular team in Embassy Suva.  These regular visits will continue until there is a full consular section in Tonga that will handle American Citizen Services as well as visa services for Tongans wishing to travel to the United States.  Brad is also working with the government and people of Tonga on key shared priorities.  Some of these include regional efforts on climate, disaster preparedness and resilience, maritime security, fisheries, oceans, and digital connectivity.  For example, the United States provided funding to install ramps and other accessibility features at community evacuation centers.  We also partnered to install hygiene facilities that cater to women and girls in the same evacuation facilities.  These efforts help ensure that all people are able to use these centers and stay safe in case of a disaster.  Maritime security is key to all countries in the region.  The U.S. Coast Guard regularly visits the country for training and recently led a course on boarding procedures for members of the Tongan navy, police, customs, and fisheries.

Brad Coley takes a group photo at the opening of a U.S.-funded workshop to help Tongans realize their national action plan to counter trafficking in persons and to protect vulnerable migrants.
Brad Coley at the opening of a U.S.-funded workshop to help Tongans realize their national action plan to counter trafficking in persons and to protect vulnerable migrants. [Photo by Brad Coley]

Exploring and Appreciating the Tongan Culture

Despite his previous experience in the Pacific, Brad noted that he was surprised that Tonga feels “a lot like a small town in America.”  There are approximately 70,000 people on the island of Tongatapu, where the U.S. Embassy is located, and approximately 40,000 who live on Tonga’s other islands.  “Everybody knows everybody, and everybody is connected to everybody.  That can be a terrific way to network and can make it easy to find the right person.” 

As a member of the LGBTQI+ community, Brad noted that living in a deeply religious and traditional society is not without its challenges, but described some traditions and reforms that are signs of progress.  In the country there is a tradition of fakaleitīs, Tongan individuals assigned male at birth who have a feminine gender expression.  While they do not strictly identify as members of the LGBTQI+ community, they have been involved in reforming colonial-era laws on sexuality and gender expression.  The Miss Galaxy Pageant, organized by the Tongan Leitis’ Association, is a widely attended event each July with members of the royal family having served as judges.  There is even a documentary made about the pageant in 2018 titled Leitis in Waiting.  The United States is working to amplify the good work being done by the local LGBTQI+ community and other human rights advocates. 

Secretary Blinken poses for a photo with Peace Corps Volunteers in Nuku'alofa  Tonga.
Secretary Blinken with Peace Corps volunteers in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. [State Department photo]

The Future of Our Partnership 

Tonga is a vital U.S. partner, and its priorities often reflect those of the wider Indo-Pacific region.  Together, we are working to support Tonga’s priorities during its year as Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) chair.  Tonga’s prime minister has highlighted climate finance as a priority for the region, and Embassy Nukuʻalofa is working to align regional U.S. assistance with this priority.  Beyond its PIF chair year, we are working to support disaster risk reduction, digital connectivity, and a just and equitable energy transition.  Peace Corps volunteers have now returned to Tonga after the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have resumed English language education at primary schools.  At Tonga’s request, the next cohort of Peace Corps volunteers will include volunteers focused on environmental and climate response.  The future of the U.S.-Tonga relationship is bright.  We look forward to working together to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

About the Author:  Shalom Konstantino is a Public Affairs professional in the Office of Global Communications Strategy in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs.  He is married to a Foreign Service Officer and they are currently based in Luxembourg.

U.S. Department of State

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