Sir Laurence Martin obituary

In his BBC Reith lectures in 1981, the historian and security strategist Laurence Martin spoke of the “miserably dangerous” need to avert nuclear war, concerns that have recently returned to face the western world. He was well aware of the huge difficulties of trying to ensure the outcome of “the endless search for safety”, which became the subject of the last chapter of the book drawn from the lecture series, The Two Edged Sword: Armed Force in the Modern World (1982).

While advocating vigorous and open debate, he recognised the difficulty of achieving a relationship of trust with a nuclear power such the former Soviet Union, and was “relatively pessimistic” about the prospects of a greater degree of western European unity and self-reliance in defence matters. Our peace was of a provisional kind, and in order to maintain the balance of power, security must be on hand when needed: every generation had to make its own security. Thus he strongly opposed unilateral disarmament and argued for vigorous defensive efforts, combined with maintaining conventional weapon capability and maritime power.

In a letter to the Telegraph in 2014, before the Russian invasion of Crimea, he reiterated the need for the balance of power to be maintained in the west. His books included Peace Without Victory: Woodrow Wilson and the British Liberals (1958), Arms and Strategy: An International Survey of Modern Defence (1973), Strategic Thought in the Nuclear Age (1979) and The Changing Face of Nuclear Warfare (1987).

Regarded by some as rightwing, or an “extreme moderate”, Laurie himself considered his politics to be middle of the road. He was a consummate committee man, able to sway opinion by dint of his quick thinking, diplomacy and personal charm, gaining the respect and admiration of those he worked with. Curious about everyone he met, he had an innate sense of fairness.

These qualities were invaluable assets for his involvement in many national and international institutions. They included the Center for Stategic and International Studies in Washington, where Henry Kissinger was another leading light, from 1969, which he served as co-chair from 1998 and senior adviser for six years from 2000. In London he was involved with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, serving on its council 1973-83, and the Institute for the Study of Conflict. The culmination of his work as a security strategist came as director of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (1991-96).

This post coincided with the end of the cold war, when the institute’s experts, researchers and staff played a key role in facilitating dialogue between members of governments and policymakers surrounding the challenges of the break-up of the Soviet Union, war in Yugoslavia and its dissolution, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the United Nations’ increased role in international politics. At the same time, since core government funding of Chatham House had ceased (it is now an independent body), Laurie helped modernise its fundraising, and promoted improved communications to policymakers by developing its use of the internet.

Once he had spent some years in the US, Laurie never quite lost a slight mid-Atlantic accent. But he was very proud of having been born and brought up in Cornwall: his mother, Florence (nee Woodward), worked in the local brewery in St Austell, and his father, Leonard Martin, was a teacher. From St Austell grammar school Laurie went to Christ’s College, Cambridge to take a degree in history (1948). Then he did two years of national service with the RAF as a pilot officer, later flying officer, based in Cornwall.

The first time he crossed the Atlantic was to take a PhD on Woodrow Wilson at Yale. He went on to be assistant professor at MIT (1955-61), associate professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and research associate at the Washington Center of Foreign Policy Research.

Back in Britain he became Woodrow Wilson professor of international politics at the University of Wales in 1964, and four years later head of the war studies department at King’s College London. He expanded it, introduced an ethicist and a diplomatic historian, and took a keen interest in the development of the college’s Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, where I got to know him.

His next move, to become vice-chancellor at the University of Newcastle in 1978, reflected the recognition of his skills in negotiation and administration. His 12 years at Newcastle came during a time of reform in the higher education system and expansion of the university. He was a popular figure, and his decision to allow Channel 4 to film a documentary series, Redbrick, in 1985, proved successful, bringing the work and life of the university to a wide audience.

In 1994 he was knighted, and in retirement he enjoyed his garden in Suffolk, fishing in Northumberland and trips on steam trains.

He married Betty Parnall in 1951 and they had a daughter, Jane, and son, Bill. His wife and daughter predeceased him; his son and two grandsons, Tom and Jack, survive him.

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