It’s a shame that Mr. Gates did not take office until too late in the Bush administration, with Iraq more or less the sole focus of his attention. A low-key administrator who has a pronounced tendency to say the right thing at the right time — unlike his predecessor — Mr. Gates might have done some good for the alliance. He certainly possesses an ability to listen to other governments, a quality that has been altogether rare among members of the Bush administration.
As noted by Thom Shanker in the New York Times on remarks on constitution revision in a speech by Mr. Gates at Sophia University, “…Mr. Gates made clear that such decisions were an internal matter for Japan.”
As for the substance of Mr. Gates’s talks with Mr. Fukuda and others, there appears to have been lots of “urging” and reminding Japan of its international responsibilities regarding the war on terrorism and operations in Afghanistan. With Foreign Minister Komura, there was talk of a resolution this month of the dispute over a proposed cut by Japan to its “sympathy budget” for US forces in Japan.
In general, though, the mood seems to be more subdued than earlier bilateral security meetings under the Bush administration. The joint press conference with Messrs. Gates and Ishiba seems remarkably businesslike and free of excessive flights of rhetoric. This may in part be a function of personnel changes: neither Mr. Gates nor Mr. Fukuda and his cabinet lineup are prone to outbursts of enthusiasm about the glories of US-Japan cooperation from which Mr. Abe and Mr. Aso suffer. But it might also be indicative of a new realism about the alliance. By now, both governments cannot deny the existence of tension in the relationship, and it does not serve the relationship well to raise expectations about the health and value of the alliance to unreasonable heights.
The allies have a lot of work to do to alter their relationship for a new era. It is probably too much to expect that the Bush administration will get this process rolling in its final year in office, or, alternatively, that Mr. Fukuda and the Japanese government will take the initiative in the absence of US leadership.