What kind of Navy did we have before World War I?

Rep. Paul Ryan asserted last night that if defense cuts mandated as part of a bipartisan budget deal go through, "our Navy will be "the smallest it has been since before World War I."

This echoes an even more dire warning on the Romney campaign's website:  "The U.S. Navy has only 284 ships today, on track to hit the lowest level since 1916. Given current trends, the number will decline, and the additional contemplated cuts will cause it to decline even further."

Fact-checkers are dinging Ryan for the statement, noting that ship numbers have gone below 284 several times in the 20th century, but in his defense, he's only echoing a warning by Obama's own defense secretary. Leon Panetta wrote in a Nov., 2011 letter to Sen. John Mccain that,  “Rough estimates suggest after ten years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history.”

Whether or not the cuts would actually be this dire, measuring naval strength in terms of number of ships is a bit misleading. Here are the numbers from the 1915 fleet of 231 total ships, according to the U.S. Navy website

  • 32 battleships
  • 30 cruisers
  • 3 monitors
  • 57 destroyers
  • 18 torpedo boats
  • 37 submarines
  • 17 steel gunboats
  • 26 auxilliaries
  • 11 gunboats

Here's the current fleet:

  • 11 aircraft carriers
  • 22 cruisers
  • 61 destroyers
  • 26 frigates
  • 2 littoral combat ships
  • 53 submarines
  • 14 ballistic missile submarines
  • 4 cruise missile submarines
  • 14 mine warfare vessels
  • 31 amphibious vessels
  • 47 auxilliary vessels

Even after a 19 percent cut, I think I'd take the navy with the aircraft carriers and the nuclear subs in a fight. 

Moreover, the pre-World War I line gives the impression that the number of ships has steadily increased since that time and is in danger of staring to decline. The U.S. fleet actually hit its high point at the end of World War II with 6,768 ships. In the post-war era, it hit its high with 1,122 ships in 1953 and has been steadily declining ever since. 

This isn't because of spending cuts, it's because of changes in military priorities. As Naval analyst and FP contributor Michael Peck points out:

In 1916, the largest navy in the world belonged to Great Britain (the U.S. devised plans for war with Britain as late as the 1930s), while Germany and France built powerful fleets. Fears of a German invasion of New York were improbable, if not utterly fantastic, but in a pre-nuclear weapon, pre-smart weapon age, the size of a navy really mattered.

There's certainly a legitimate case to be made that the U.S. should reinvest in Naval power as part of a shift in priorities to the Asia-Pacific region. (See Douglas Ollivant for the counterargument.) But the Defense Department and the Romney campaign's framing of this issue in terms of number of boats in the water is probably not the best starting point for the conversation.


Nobel Peace Prize as warning

I'd like to be able to boast about having included the European Union on my "Handicapping the Nobel Peace Prize" list earlier this week, but given that I put it in the longshot category alongside WikiLeaks and Willie Nelson, I can't really claim to be too prescient. (There's always next year, Willie!)

My colleague Dan Drezner complains,  "It's for things the EU did in the past.  In contrast, Obama's peace prize was suggestive of things he would do in the future.  There's no consistency." But there hasn't really been a clear or consistent set of criteria for winning the prize for quite some time. 

Alfred Nobel's will specified that the prize should be given to "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” But since the 1960s, the prize has just as often been given to individuals like Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Andrei Sakharov, or Liu Xiaobo, who were recognized primarily for advancing human rights or general welfare within a particular country.

So often a large part of the interpretation for any year's prize is devoted not just to why the person or insitution deserved to win, but to what message the prize committee was looking to send. With Al Gore and IPCC, it was to highlight climate change. With Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karman, it was to highlight women's rights struggles around the world. With Barack Obama, it was to say, "Thank God George Bush isn't president anymore."

I think the most generous interpretation of this year's award is that it's a reminder to euroskeptics of what the continent looked like in the half century before the European integration project kicked off.  As chairman Thorbjorn Jagland put it, “The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a 70-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today, war between Germany and France is unthinkable.” He continued: “We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating. Therefore, we should focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization.”

(I can't claim any expertise on Norwegian politics, but I would also be curious where the members of the comittee stand on the debate over membership in the E.U. The Labour and Conservative parties, which are generally pro-European, control three of the five seats on the committee. )

Jagland's argument is a reasonable one. But as Ronald Krebs pointed out in a 2009 FP piece, the prize often carries unintended consequences for winners. For dissidents like Liu, Sakharov, and Aung San Suu Kyi, it often encourages autocratic governments to crack down further. For powerful leaders, it provides a near-impossible standard to live up to. Obama, for one, likely wishes his critics on both the right and left didn't have the prize to bring out as a punchline every time they attack his foreign policy.

It would be nice to think the Nobel will encourage European leaders to remember the positive accomplishments of integration along with its obvious drawbacks. But it seems just as likely to only throw more fuel on an already combustible situation.