Michael MccGwire

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Michael (Mike) MccGwire OBE (b 1924, Madras, India) is a British international relations specialist known for his work on Cold War geopolitics and military strategy, and was Professor of Maritime and Strategic Studies at Dalhousie University. He is a former Royal Navy Commander, strategic analyst of the Soviet Union's military and international relations, and critic of nuclear deterrence theory.


MccGwire grew up in British India. He was schooled in Lausanne before the family moved to Swanage in England, and he then attended the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth at age 14. In 1942 he was old enough for military duty aboard ships in World War II, and participated in several well-known operations, including the invasion of Normandy. He spent time aboard a British destroyer in the Pacific that was then deployed in 1947 to the Palestine Patrol, to block Jewish immigration into Palestine. He then took an undergraduate degree in Russian at the University of Cambridge, sometimes in classes with the later defector George Blake. He was three years with Fisheries Protection in Norway and then on training duties for the Australian Navy.[1]

In 1952 he joined GCHQ to develop naval intelligence on the Soviet Navy, then returned to sea, and in 1956-8 became a naval attaché in Moscow, accompanied by his family. Constantly under surveillance he travelled widely and provided some military intelligence before modern satellite data was available, and gradually became an expert on Soviet geopolitics. Made a Naval Commander, he undertook further study in the UK and USA. As a 'war planner' he worked in the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT). By the mid-1960s he was head of Soviet Naval Intelligence in the British Defence Intelligence Staff, completely reshaping the intelligence effort to ask new questions. His aim was not to assess the military threat - how many ships the Soviets had - but what the Soviet Navy was for.[1]

He retired from the Navy in 1967 aged 42. As a premier expert on the Soviet Union, colleagues were surprised when he quit a promising career to become an undergraduate student in International Politics and Economics at University of Wales, Aberystwyth, graduating in 1970. His intention was to retrain for an international career. While a student he also produced a separate, 120,000 word book on the Soviet Navy (unpublished). When no international jobs materialised he lectured at UWA, but in 1970 became Professor of Maritime and Strategic Studies at Dalhousie University, Canada, a post gained on the basis of his experience and previous publications. He stayed there until 1979, developing many teaching and research initiatives and publishing three edited books.

In 1979 he became a Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., USA and initially worked on analysis of the US Navy, as well as publishing two volumes on the Soviet Navy at a time when the 'second Cold War' was underway. He retired in 1990 but joined the University of Cambridge part-time for three years, in their Global Security Programme.

MccGwire is married to Helen and has 5 children, including the writer and adviser to Labour Party figures, Scarlett MccGwire, author/communication consultant Lucinda Neall, CAB adviser Katrina Higham, business publisher Rory MccGwire and corporate financier Paddy MccGwire. He lives in Dorset, UK.

Understanding Soviet strategy[edit]

MccGwire is best known for the 'MccGwire thesis': that the Soviet military buildup during the Cold War was largely due to fear of attack, and was thus a defensive measure. He confirms this with extensive empirical analysis of military strategy, and by querying political motivations. He strongly challenged the prevailing Cold War view that Moscow was planning preemptive military aggression against the West. This view, he says, had been based on inadequate analysis and poor understanding of Soviet policymaking by Western intelligence, and could have had severe repercussions. His first article in the Naval Review argued against Britain's nuclear deterrent for this reason, and many other articles and two books later followed. For example, he argued the armaments on Soviet vessels in the 1950s were added to protect trade routes.[1]:97

MccGwire developed 'objectives analysis' to track changes in military hardware and strategy, based on painstaking analysis of personnel, equipment and geopolitical intentions. Despite this, The British and USA military never fully accepted the 'MccGwire thesis' as it became known.[2]

At Brookings, he challenged the Reagan military buildup as provocative and unnecessary, and was a frequent public commentator. He identified a tipping point in Soviet strategy: in 1987, when the threat of global war became downgraded and armed forces withdrew from Eastern Europe. At this time, prevention of global warfare was the aim in Moscow, where Gorbachev wanted to defuse tensions and downgrade military spending.[3] In sum, MccGwire believes the end of the Cold War was due to Soviet actions rather than the initiative of the Western powers.

At Cambridge, he enlarged the terrain of security studies to include economic and social development, and environmental sustainability, while continuing to argue for an end to nuclear deterrents.[4] He continued publishing over the last decade and still comments on world affairs.[5][6]



  1. ^ a b c Booth K et al. 1998. A Cold War life, and beyond. In Security and Statecraft. The Cold War and Beyond (essays in honour of Mike MccGwire). Cambridge University Press. p87-134.
  2. ^ MccGwire, M. 1987. Military Objectives in Soviet Foreign Policy. Washington DC: the Brookings Institution.
  3. ^ MccGwire, M. 1991. Perestroika and Soviet Military Policy. Washington DC: the Brookings Institution.
  4. ^ MccGwire M.K. 2006. Nuclear demonstration. Prospect. 24 September 2006 (126)
  5. ^ Cobban, H. 2010. Mike MccGwire on the Iraq war.
  6. ^ MccGwire M.K. 2000. Why did we bomb Belgrade? International Affairs 76(1)