SAO PAULO — When faced with the revelation that she had been spied on by the United States' intelligence services, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that "Spying between friends, that's just not done." Indeed, there are certain unwritten customs between friends that should always be respected, otherwise you lose that friend.

But are there such things as friends among nation-states? Or does every country consider the others as adversaries?

When I declare myself an economic nationalist, people are often surprised. Isn't nationalism an outdated ideology, they wonder? Do we not live in a global society in which nation-states are now irrelevant? These are questions that find their origins in the neoliberal and globalist ideology that dominated the world between 1979 and 2008, an ideology of a world without borders.

In reality, it was nothing more than a strategy for domination. In its quality as the imperial power of our time — or as our "hegemon," as its defenders prefer to call it — the United States propagated the theory of a democratic and friendly Western world that was facing some necessary "enemies." It used to be the Soviet Union (with some reason), now it is Russia and China.

The NSA spying is evidence of how absurd this theory is. It reveals yet again the nationalism of the American government. The United States focuses only on its own interests, that of its "national security" which justifies everything it does, and the interests of its big companies, on which its wealth rests.

Playing the game

When Edward Snowden (a "traitor," according to U.S. officials) revealed the widespread practices of American spying, the other countries — mostly Europeans, the supposed "close friends" — expressed their indignation. But they didn't actually do anything, unlike Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff who cancelled her planned visit to the U.S. The Europeans didn't do anything, because they know this is how the game is played.

The rule of this game is that of the national interest, of a "realism" that justifies even widespread mass surveillance.

When the competition among nation-states takes place between equals, such an expression of realism is sufficient. But when it takes place between a strong nation and a weaker one, we need to talk instead of imperialism on the part of the dominating country, and the only way to counter it is nationalism — for the nation to unite in the face of pressure from the imperial power, and to not submit to the will of the powerful.

There is just one global imperial superpower today: the United States. The others are only regional powers. France is imperial with regards to North Africa and to the Middle East. Brazil and Argentina are imperial with regards to Paraguay and Bolivia.

The imperialism of some and the necessary nationalism of all doesn't mean countries shouldn't work together and build strong international institutions. The rule is not only to compete: It is to compete and to work hand-in-hand. But the necessary solidarity among human beings cannot be confused with dependence or submission.

*Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira is professor emeritus for the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, where he teaches economic, political and social theory.