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How to Train Your Dragoon: Part II

Czechoslovakia entered the decolonization era with two notable advantages in the military training market.

Words: Sam Ratner

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

Last week in Deep Dive, we looked at new research on how the US military succeeds and fails at changing its own officers’ attitudes about civilian protection. This week, we’ll turn to the story of what happens when military training becomes an export product, and the political processes that can set in motion for the country doing the exporting.

During the height of decolonization in the mid-20th century, the global market for military training exploded. Having a military is widely seen as a sine qua non of stateness, and the sudden appearance of dozens of new states meant that there were dozens of new militaries being built, largely from the ground up. Historians Daniela Richterova, Mikuláš Pešta, and Natalia Telepneva have a new article in the International History Review that describes the supply side of that market in one of the most prolific military exporters of the era: Czechoslovakia. From Egypt to Cuba to Indonesia, the Czechoslovak policy of exporting military equipment and training shaped the militaries of many new states around the world.

The history of Czechoslovakia shows that in international markets for military readiness, politics and economics are indeed inseparable.

The question that occupies Richterova et al. is why Czechoslovakia pursued that policy in the first place. All else equal, states tend not to be in the business of making other states more competitive on the battlefield. States that do engage in large-scale military assistance are often hegemons, engaged in the complicated dance of strengthening their proxies just enough to keep the proxies on their side. Czechoslovakia was hegemon-adjacent, as a Soviet satellite state, but was hardly cultivating proxy states. Instead, the historians argue, Czechoslovakia became drill instructors to the world out of a combination of ideological solidarity and economic need.

Czechoslovakia entered the decolonization era with two notable advantages in the military training market. First, it had a massive defense industrial base left over from the world wars, along with a legion of skilled weapons designers and manufacturers. Demand for Czechoslovak weapons and military technology was high, and it seemed only natural to exploit that demand by also selling training on how to use those weapons and technology. Second, Joseph Stalin had died and Nikita Kruschev had entered the chat, bringing with him the idea that Soviet satellite states should pursue their own foreign policies within the Soviet system. The Czechoslovak state had an asset — and the freedom to exploit it.

And exploit it they did. Czechoslovakia created new institutions within its military training infrastructure set aside for foreign students, including the Faculty of Foreign Studies at its main training site and a separate Aviation Training Centre. These institutions did some pro bono work, training members of left leaning insurgencies and offering small weapons and training packages to new countries that were particularly strapped for cash. Yet, it was the Ministry of Trade, not the Ministry of Defence, that conducted most of the business around foreign military training — the point was to make sure that the training programs brought in badly needed foreign currency. Between 1956 and 1961, the government made 2.3 billion Czechoslovak Crowns from military assistance, of which 140 million was just from the training programs.

Profitable though it was, the primacy of the Trade Ministry created some problems for the training program. For one, customers hated the Trade Ministry. Czechoslovakia was a major player in the world arms and training market, but far from the only one. When potential buyers sat down with Czechoslovakia’s competitors, they were doing business with fellow military leaders who shared their concerns and sense of military propriety. When the buyers sat down with the Czechoslovak Trade Ministry, they were doing business with profit-seeking bureaucrats.

For another, Czechoslovakia was trying to compete in a market where the other sellers were ignoring the rules of the market. Western military exporters, more interested in pursuing proxies than in profiting from weapons sales and training, began to dramatically undercut Czechoslovak prices. This, combined with a dramatic slowdown of the Czechoslovak economy in the early 1960s, led the Defence Ministry to argue that Prague faced a choice: Either shutter the military export program or stop trying to compete on price and instead engage the market with the same political eye as its competitors.

The latter strategy worked, but not in the way that advocates from the Defence Ministry, who long tried to wrest control of the program away from the Trade Ministry, believed it would. By 1968, the military export program was booming again, and the Trade Ministry smugly noted in an internal document that it was still in charge. The document claimed that the turnaround was the result of maintaining a strictly commercial approach to weapon and training sales, but it undercut that claim with an important political admission. The renewed popularity of Czechoslovak military programs, the document noted, derived in large part from the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement and the desire of many recently decolonized countries to separate themselves from both the US and the USSR. Czechoslovakia, as a smaller and more or less independent exporter, suddenly became a much more popular source for military goods and services. The Trade Ministry rode that wave as long as it could.

In the end, training programs that were often presented primarily as examples of socialist solidarity served dual roles for Czechoslovakia. The expressions of solidarity were real — Prague not only trained and supplied the FLN independence movement in Algeria, it also continued to arm Algeria largely for free for years after it gained independence. Yet, the commercial purpose of the training programs was central, even to the point where a breakdown in international socialist solidarity resulted in a major comeback for Czechoslovak military exports. In international markets for military readiness, politics and economics are indeed inseparable.

Sam Ratner


Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers southeast African security issues, and a founding editor of Fellow Travelers Blog. He earned his MPA in international security policy from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He tweets at @samratner.


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