Dobbs was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland and graduated from the University of York in 1972, with a BA in Economic & Social History, and completed fellowships at Princeton and Harvard. He became a U.S. citizen in 2010.
Dobbs spent much of his career as a foreign correspondent covering the collapse of communism. He was the first Western reporter to visit the Gdansk shipyard in August 1980; he also covered the Tiananmen Square uprising in China in 1989, the abortive coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, and the wars in the former Yugoslavia. He joined The Washington Post in 1980, when he was appointed bureau chief in eastern Europe (1980–1981), based in Warsaw. He was also bureau chief in Paris (1982–1986) and Moscow (1988–1993). Other assignments included stints in Rome for Reuters news agency (1974–1975), in Africa as a freelancer (1976), and as a special correspondent in Belgrade (1977–1980), when he covered the death of Marshal Josip Broz Tito.
In Washington, he worked for the Post as a United States Department of State reporter and as a foreign investigative reporter, covering the Dayton peace process. During the U.S. presidential campaign in 2008, he returned to the newspaper to launch its online "Fact Checker" column.
Dobbs is the author of the "Cold War trilogy", a series of books about the climactic moments of the Cold War. His Down with Big Brother: The Fall of The Soviet Empire was a runner-up for the 1997 PEN award for nonfiction. His hour-by-hour study of the Cuban Missile Crisis, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, was a finalist for the 2008 Los Angeles Times history prize and was named one of five non-fiction books of the year by The Washington Post. The final book in the trilogy, Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War (Knopf, 2012), describes the division of Europe into American and Soviet spheres of influence after World War II.
His other books include a biography of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America, about a bungled Nazi sabotage attempt directed against the United States in 1942.
Michael Dobbs was a visiting professor in the Department of Communications Studies at the University of Michigan from 2010–2011; he has also taught at Princeton University. He is a research fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and he covered the genocide trial of former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladić for Foreign Policy magazine.
Dobbs, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, is a distant relative of Michael Dobbs, the British politician and author of the political thriller House of Cards.