Tunisia’s new status as ‘major non-NATO ally’
WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama plans to designate Tunisia a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA) of the United States. Obama announced his intentions to elevate Tunisia’s status during a May 21st meeting with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.
The US Congress has 30 days to disapprove the designation but indications are that the congressional leadership fully supports the move.
Despite having the word “ally” in its title, the new status does not indicate that the United States and Tunisia have entered into a mutual defence treaty, as have NATO’s permanent members. Nor does it mean that Tunisia is in line to join NATO. The status is solely a US designation, not one issued by NATO or any other member.
MNNA was established in 1989 to allow the US Department of Defense to conduct research-and-development projects with important US strategic partners that were not members of NATO. The first MNNA countries were Australia, Egypt, Israel, Japan and South Korea.
Legislation by Congress in 1996 expanded the benefits of the designation to include enhanced financial assistance in acquiring US arms, coordinated defence planning, special training programmes and priority access to surplus US weapons. The latter benefit came about as a result of the Cold War’s ending. The United States had huge stocks of weapons in Europe that were no longer necessary but would be too costly to ship back across the Atlantic.
Another important benefit of the status is limited exemption from the US Arms Export Control Act, making it easier for MNNA countries to acquire advanced and sophisticated weapons that they may previously have been denied.
While these tangible benefits matter, the designation is primarily a symbolic indication of the US commitment to an ally’s security and support for its government’s policies. By 2000, Argentina, Jordan and New Zealand had been added to the list and, under President George W. Bush, six additional nations — Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand — received the designation. Clearly, some of these countries were rewarded for their support of Bush’s Middle East policies.
Tunisia is not the first country to be given this status by Obama. In May 2012, Obama designated Afghanistan “a major non-NATO ally”.
Observers expected Obama to offer the status to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members when he met their leaders in the United States in May. Speculation is that GCC leaders rejected the offer, regarding the status as poor compensation for what they really wanted: a US-GCC mutual defence treaty, something that the administration had said all along was not in the cards.
No nation has had its “a major non-NATO ally” status revoked. Israel was “promoted” in December 2014 when Congress voted to declare Israel a “Major Strategic Partner”. The additional benefits to Israel are designed to ensure that country’s “qualitative military edge” over any other state in the region.