Two big questions frame academic debate about U.S. nuclear strategy. The first question is often phrased quite simply as “How much is enough?” by which the speaker means something like “How many nuclear weapons are necessary to maintain peace and security?” In its broadest form this question drives a political debate between advocates of disarmament and advocates of deterrence. However, in the academic realm, there is relatively little literature on disarmament. There is no theory of nuclear disarmament. Instead, debate about nuclear security is dominated by the theory of nuclear deterrence theory. Therefore, the substantive question framing the academic debate takes the form, “What are the requirements of deterrence?” Participants in this debate agree amongst one another that the existence of nuclear weapons is, if not desirable, at least inevitable for the foreseeable future. What they disagree about is the number and kind of weapons that are necessary to maintain a stable deterrent. The second question frames a debate about the dynamics of nuclear proliferation and the implementation of the nonproliferation regime. In academic jargon, scholars ask, “What are the determinates of nuclear weapons proliferation?” by which they mean, “Why do states build nuclear weapons?” Explaining what motivates states to build and maintain nuclear arsenals, whether that be countering external threats, increasing international prestige, or responding to the exigencies of domestic politics, carries implications for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. This is because every argument about how to prevent states from building nuclear weapons contains within it an implicit or explicit answer to why they want to build them in the first place.
Nuclear philosophy brings tools of critical analysis to bear on problems of nuclear policy. The goal is to recover space for human agency within the debate about nuclear security by transforming nuclear weapons from the subject into the object of the discourse. As long as nuclear weapons remain the principle subject and agent of a discourse dedicated to prescribing the appropriate human response to their power, we will continue to limit our imagination of the possible and remain blind to the potential for social transformation. Rather than taking a position within the debate, nuclear philosophy is the practice of questioning the norms of the debate itself.