The war in Ukraine has certainly underscored the value of allies and partners in major conflicts. So, too, it reminds us about the critical necessity of having a range of options for empowering those countries who enjoy such a relationship. One such tool is the president’s authority to confer Major Non-NATO Ally, or MNNA, status on specified countries.
Given the arduous process of NATO accession and the alliance’s narrow Atlantic Charter, Congress recognized the need for another mechanism to build bilateral alliances that enabled countering Soviet influence during the Cold War.
In 1987, Congress and the executive branch modified Title 10 (defense) of the U.S. Code to allow for direct agreements with non-NATO allies. Congress expanded this authority in 1996, modifying Title 22 (diplomacy) to empower the president to designate major non-NATO ally status explicitly.
With just seventeen countries, the current major non-NATO ally “club” is still relatively exclusive. But benefits vary by country and depend on bilateral and regional factors, making the designation subjective, if not also somewhat symbolic.
Generally, such countries receive priority access to U.S. military equipment and technology, including weapons systems, aircraft, and other advanced hardware. They also receive training and support beyond that provided to non-designated countries from U.S. military advisors and special operations forces.
Designated countries are also eligible for financial assistance, including grants and loans for military infrastructure projects. They may receive economic assistance and trade benefits like duty-free access to American markets for goods unavailable to others.
While the major non-NATO ally designation has been valuable in strengthening regional strategic alliances, the program’s incentive structure limits its appeal. The State Department notes that the agreement “does not entail any security commitment to the designated country.” Given this lack of assurance, countries could be forgiven for questioning the token nature of this preferred status.
In reality, the special ally status confers no guarantee for favored or consistent treatment. Specific treatment often depends on current U.S. policies and objectives. For example, Pakistan initially benefited from its 2004 major non-NATO ally designation, receiving several tranches of foreign military sales and excess defense articles. But after diplomatic clashes over Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban, and the fallout from the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil, Islamabad has faced several U.S. congressional efforts to rescind the status.
While the designation has proved helpful in strengthening ties between the U.S. and select non-NATO countries, it is ripe for a refit that better addresses today’s geo-strategic challenges. Congress should consider revising the current major non-NATO ally designation or creating a new category with additional benefits by enhancing the program for countries that significantly advantage U.S. national security.
By providing advanced military equipment and training to such specially designated countries, the U.S. can reduce the likelihood of conflict and help these countries defend themselves against external threats. In line with the Department of Defense’s comprehensive recommendations to strengthen the Foreign Military Sales process, enhanced major non-NATO ally treatment should include streamlining or privileging a country’s participation in this effort.
Indeed, if Ukraine had attained this status before Russia’s unlawful invasion, the situation might well be different today.
Enhancing the benefits of such special ally status would also assist in promoting American values and principles. For example, widening U.S. educational opportunities and offering grants and loans for students in those countries could be a practical incentive to strengthen bonds.
Militarily, we might consider accelerating a special ally’s approval for International Military and Educational Training, or IMET, prioritizing attendance at prestigious U.S. Service Academies, increasing our intelligence-sharing that includes access to tactical networks, and widening opportunities for bilateral training at top-tier U.S. venues, such as Red Flag and the National Training Center.
Increasing our support to select countries would help the U.S. to promote stability and prosperity in regions historically plagued by conflict and instability. By enhancing the status of countries that share our desire to maintain the international rules-based order, the U.S. grows an ever-stronger web to counter peer competitors. And if countries cease to meet the standards required of an enhanced non-NATO ally, they can be removed from the list.
All current major non-NATO ally countries have supported our U.S. national security interests — some more than others. New Zealand remains a valued member of the Five Eyes partnership, and its military contributed to the war on terror; South Korea, which serves as a significant bulwark against North Korean aggression, hosts almost 30,000 U.S. troops throughout its country; Bahrain hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. Fifth Fleet and the Coalition Maritime Forces Command; Qatar hosts U.S. Central Command’s forward headquarters and the Ninth Air Force’s forward headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base; and the Philippines recently agreed to allow U.S. military presence at four bases to help counter an increasingly aggressive China.
Competing against China, Russia, and other adversaries demands that we reevaluate and, where sensible, strengthen our diplomatic and military tools. Creating an enhanced major non-NATO ally category would ensure that allies who don’t fit neatly into the Five Eyes or NATO categories have the necessary hardware, skills, and training to succeed alongside us.
Winston Churchill’s timeless quip that the only thing harder than fighting with allies is fighting without them may need an update: it’s harder still to fight with allies not as capable and interoperable with us.
Sam Mundy is a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Marine Corps. He commanded Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command and Marine Corps Forces Central Command, responsible for employing Marines assigned to the Middle East. He is the president of Once a Marine LLC and a distinguished senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Mick Mulroy is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, a retired CIA officer and U.S. Marine, an ABC News analyst, a co-founder of the Lobo Institute, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
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