U.S.-Tunisia Security Cooperation: What It Means to be a Major Non-NATO Ally

Middle East and North Africa

During a May 2015 visit to Washington by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, President Obama announced plans to designate Tunisia as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA). That designation became official in a July 10 announcement, in which the administration said the move “sends a strong signal of our support for Tunisia’s decision to join the world’s democracies and highlights the value the United States places in its friendship with the Tunisian Government and its people.” Tunisia will become the sixth Arab country (sixteenth overall) to receive this designation following Morocco, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait and Jordan. While the designation seeks to elevate the country’s significance as a regional ally, there are interesting questions about what the designation may mean practically for Tunisia.

Granting MNNA status to a country is meant to symbolize a long-term commitment to bilateral cooperation. It has been employed to shore up long-standing alliances, like in the case of Egypt, or to bolster emerging partnerships, as was the case with Afghanistan. Unlike NATO members, MNNA-designated countries do not enter a binding security commitment but rather qualify for certain privileges for previously restricted security and defense provisions and mutual partnerships to be made available.

Per U.S. law, Tunisia’s MNNA status would allow the U.S. government to devote additional funding to joint counterterrorism research and development projects for Tunisia “under the auspices of the Technical Support Working Group of the Department of State.” It would permit the Secretary of Defense to enter into “cooperative research and development projects” to improve conventional defense capabilities on an equitable cost-sharing basis. Further, Tunisia and the United States can enter into agreements to promote increased U.S.-Tunisian military cooperation in combat operations.

The designation also gives Tunisia priority for the delivery of Excess Defense Articles (EDA)– military equipment granted or sold at a reduced cost to foreign governments to modernize partner forces – “to the maximum extent feasible” over other countries. Since 2009, for example, Jordan has received Excess Defense Articles worth about $82 million dollars. Some recent examples of EDA to Jordan include C-130 aircraft, HAWK MEI-23E missiles and cargo trucks.

Tunisia will also be eligible for expedited processing of export licenses of commercial satellites and related components. They may use U.S. provided Foreign Military Financing for commercial leasing of certain arms and military equipment. Restrictions on the placement of U.S. military equipment will also be reduced, allowing Tunisia to possess War Reserve Stockpiles in territories outside of U.S. military establishments in the country.

The MNNA designation is set to bolster a modest but growing security relationship between the United States and Tunisia. The Obama administration’s FY15 and FY16 budget requests seek at least $142 million in security aid, more than doubling the requests from the two years prior. The country is also likely to receive tens of millions of additional dollars to support counterterrorism efforts through the Defense Department’s Counterterrorism Partnership Fund.

Still, questions remain about how the impact of this growing security relationship may affect Tunisia’s ability or desire to pursue badly needed reforms. As Reps. Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) recently noted, granting MNNA status to countries “does little to incentivize reform.” While this may not be the explicit intent of MNNA status, the United States must make clear that such privileges come with expectations that the government must seriously pursue reform. However, a look at the other regional countries with MNNA status – Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain – does not offer encouraging signs that the United States will make an effort to link the growing relationship to reform. In fact, Tunisia’s recent implementation of a state of emergency and arbitrary travel restrictions for individuals under 35 years old in the wake of the Sousse beach massacre have raised serious questions about the role of security institutions.

It is not yet clear how the expanding security cooperation in general and the MNNA designation in particular will impact the U.S.-Tunisia relationship. To be sure, MNNA status has often laid the groundwork for a variety of closer bi-lateral partnerships, as has been the case with countries like Bahrain and Pakistan. As a result, this designation could have significant ramifications for Tunisia’s security sector by strengthening U.S.-Tunisia military cooperation and increasing Tunisian security forces capabilities. As this relationship develops, it will be important to closely follow how U.S. security assistance affects Tunisia’s security issues.