Following my post below on the Royal Navy's cutbacks, and a far better researched and thought out contribution by Starbuck over on Wings Over Iraq (damn you and your edumucation!), I am reminded of one of the few examples of original thought in which I engaged in college - the Aitor McDonagh Aircraft Carrier Index (Patent Pending). In effect, the thesis behind the Aircraft Carrier Index is that the political intentions and aspirations of a nation can be measured by its acquisition of aircraft carriers, and inversely its decline is signalled by its relinquishment of aircraft carrier forces.
So, "big deal!", you say. As countries get richer they build bigger militaries, as they grow poorer, they reduce their military expenditure. But aircraft carriers are about more than mere defensive concerns, or the desire to project power. Aircraft carriers are about a nation's image of itself, and of its place in the world. As a start, consider that most mighty of naval powers: Canada.
You might think that this is sarcasm; it is not. At the end of WWII, Canada had the third largest navy in the world, with three aircraft carriers flying the Canadian colours. Canada looked to be on the cusp of playing a major military role in world affairs - subsequent involvement in the Korean conflict seemed to confirm this. Yet as the twentieth century progressed, and as Canada slipped from Britain's orbit, the need for aircraft carriers seemed to diminish - more importantly, Canada's own view of itself as an important military power also disappeared (hence key projects such as the Avro Arrow were cancelled).
Similarly, Australia commissioned three carriers between 1944 and 1945, with the last of these, HMAS Melbourne, only leaving service in 1982. Again, a fading power realised it could no longer justify a carrier force. But what is more significant is recent suggestions that Australia might get back in the carrier game. While it would seem that these dreams have faded since John Howard left office, they do signal that an Australia facing a newly resurgent East Asia, and with a booming economy of its own, the ability to project power is once more a sought-after tool - but more importantly, Australia sees itself once again as "one of those nations that have aircraft carriers", i.e. a regional power. Canada, Australia and the Netherlands all sacrificed their carriers after the Second World War - but only Australia has seen fit to consider bringing carriers back into its fleet.
Nowhere has the carrier as a focus of national ambitions been more clear than in South America. Argentina, which once strutted the Latin American stage as the preeminent power, acquired a carrier in 1959, and continued operations with its most recent ship the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo until 1999. Then, the economy took a tumble, and Argentina realised it couldn't run with the big boys anymore. But just to the north, Brazil has now adopted the mantle of regional big shot, and has bought a new(ish) carrier off the French - the old Foch becoming the Sao Paolo.
Most importantly, you must remember just how useless most of these carriers are - Argentina was flying ancient Super Etendard jets off its ship until decommissioning, while the Brazilian's were making do with prop-powered anti-sub aircraft until very recently (they now use the hardly-cutting edge A4 Skyhawk). This indulging in maritime fantasies isn't just an emerging power thing either - who did the French think they were fooling flying F-8 Crusaders iin the year 2000? The only thing more antiquated than an F-8 is an actual Crusader (like, a guy in mail on horseback)!
But of course, carrier ownership isn't about operational ability. It's about running with the big boys. And that's why, if you want to know who feels like a big shot, see what they have as a flag ship. And that goes doubly for seeing who thinks their glory days are behind them.