Not so long ago consecutive summits of the western powers would have called the world to attention. Nowadays, these gatherings call attention only to how fast and far the west has fallen. If one were looking for a metaphor for a decade of decline, there have been few more telling than the latest summits of leaders of the G8 nations and Nato.

Lest we forget, the opening of this century saw the US cast as an eternal hegemony. Europe struck a pose as the model for a post-nationalist multilateralism that would take root around the world. Fresh from taming Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkans, Nato had reinvented itself as the military guardian of the new global order.

Ten years on, Europe is in the grip of the nationalisms it thought it had banished. The message from the G8 leaders in Washington was that the eurozone remains hopeless and helpless in the face of the banking and sovereign debt crises that have brought a continent to its knees. For its part, the Nato summit in Chicago presented the unedifying spectacle of the world’s foremost military alliance rushing for the exits in Afghanistan.  The determinist, or should that be fatalist, view of history says we should not be surprised. The inexorable rise of the east and south was always going to upset the view that victory over Soviet communism presaged the end of history.

The rebalancing of global power ushered in by the re-emergence of China and by the rise of Brazil, Turkey and the rest was never going to be easy for the west. Add the economic and psychological impact on the rich nations of the global financial crash and everything since seems entirely explicable.

Maybe. But for those who grew up with the assumption that the world belonged to a small group of nations sitting on either side of the North Atlantic, two things are striking. The first is the breathtaking speed of the turnround - to look back to 2000 is to see a century compressed into a decade. The other is the vigour with which the west has colluded in its own demise - whether it be the US attempt to reorder the greater Middle East with cruise missiles or the European assumption that, even as the world was turned on its head, nothing need change in Europe.  By most accounts the exchanges at the G8 summit were polite enough. The closed-door deliberations were the more convivial for the absence of Vladimir Putin. The Russian president is still sulking about US missile defence.

Francois Hollande’s election as French president has shifted the centre of gravity in the eurozone. Nicolas Sarkozy’s relationship with Germany’s Angela Merkel recalled Tony Blair’s “hug ‘em close” approach to George W. Bush. Mr Hollande is asserting a more independent French position.

So Ms Merkel finds herself pretty much isolated. Barack Obama makes no secret of his frustration with Berlin. The crisis in Europe, the president knows, could rob the US of the economic growth he needs for re-election. Mario Monti, Italy’s prime minister, is also on the side of those who believe fiscal retrenchment is self-defeating without growth.

Whether any of this translates into substantive policy changes is at best moot. The strange thing about this crisis is that all the main players, Germany included, do indeed want to save the euro. It is just that they are not prepared to muster the will to match the end. Are they ready to create the political union needed to sustain the single currency? As long as this question goes unanswered the crisis will fester.

The arguments about a Greek exit, about eurozone bonds, the role of the European Central Bank and the rest have thus become a proxy for doubts about European integration. The creation of the euro presumed that Europe was heading into ever deeper union. The euro crisis has turned out to be both cause and effect of the unravelling of that commitment. Europeans are reaching again for the chimera of independent action and calling it national sovereignty.

Nato is scarcely in better shape. Failure in Afghanistan does not mean the end to the alliance; nor does the US “pivot to Asia” prefigure an abrupt end to the partnership. Al-Qaeda has been decapitated by American drones and marginalised by the Arab uprisings. For all the mutual frustrations, the US and Europe still need each other to safeguard the global commons. What’s missing is a guiding purpose - and a willingness on the European side to pay for the alliance’s upkeep.  The other day I asked a distinguished military scholar from Washington what Nato is now for. Events, he said, would provide the mission: “stuff happens”, in Donald Rumsfeld’s famous phrase. He is right that inertia is on the side of preserving at least the form of the alliance. Whether it will amount to much, I am not so sure.

The west is not finished. These nations remain by far the richest on the planet. For every tale of woe about gridlock in Washington there is a story of American enterprise and ingenuity. Billions of people around the world would give anything for what Europeans call austerity.

The rest have their own problems. The recent glimpse of political stasis in India, faltering growth rates in places such as Brazil - all are another reminder that history does not travel in straight lines. Nor are any of these powers willing or able to take on the global responsibilities shouldered by the US and, to a degree, by Europe.

Relative decline is the west’s fate. Inevitably, it will be uncomfortable but it need not be harrowing. What is so maddening is that the leaders who gathered in Washington and Chicago seem so determined to make the very worst of it.

–Financial Times