When bluster ends in capitulation, what do other negotiating partners see? Blood in the water.
North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, surely absorbed the lesson from the Trump administration's recent dealings with China. He saw how rashly President Trump waged trade war against China and how rapidly he retreated at the first sign of serious resistance.
Kim thus took the administration's implied threats to his life in stride. He waved aside Trump's demand that North Korea agree to give up its nuclear weapons before talks even commence. All Kim had to do was say he might cancel the planned summit with the president, and the president took it all back. Oh, now Trump's canceling, too. Back to fire and fury.
The problem goes deeper than weakness made more pathetic by bellicose tweets and insults. Trump really doesn't know how to negotiate.
If Trump knew how to negotiate, he would not have let national security adviser John Bolton run his mouth about applying the "Libya model" to Kim. That was a reference to the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was killed by a NATO-supported militia even after he gave up his nukes.
North Koreans describe their feelings for Bolton as "repugnance." Trump disavowed Bolton's comments but didn't have the guts or smarts to fire him.
Did Trump truly think that his pot-banging threats on trade would force China's proud, aggressive and increasingly rich leaders to cave? Obviously, they didn't. All they had to do was threaten American farm exports to their country, and Trump promptly shifted to reverse.
After Trump boasted that China offered to cut $200 billion from its trade surplus, China announced that it had made no such promise. America's valid complaints over China's trade practices, meanwhile, have gone largely unaddressed.
During the "negotiations" in Beijing, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, were heard loudly cursing each other out in the hall. That must have made an impression on the Chinese negotiators calmly laying out their strategy.
A month ago, the president's own Commerce Department properly slapped sanctions against ZTE, the Chinese communications giant. ZTE was found to have illegally shipped products to Iran and North Korea. ZTE depends on American components. Denying access to them would devastate the company, but this was a matter of our national security.
Then Trump turned tail. He issued a cringing tweet May 13 about wanting to save Chinese jobs. He said he was working with President Xi Jinping to help ZTE "get back into business, fast."
Trump called Xi a "world-class poker player." Truer words he's never said.
But after lawmakers from both parties condemned the turnaround, Trump turned around again. He said that the U.S. had not agreed to suspend the penalties on ZTE. Who knows what tomorrow's tweet may bring?
As for North Korea, Trump's agreeing to meet Kim was itself a concession. The only thing Kim has done in return was release three American prisoners he had kidnapped to begin with. In response to this puny gesture, Trump all but led a victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The air of desperation thickens by the day. How else to account for the administration's batty idea to issue a commemorative coin for the summit? It shows Trump and Kim facing each other and labels Kim "Supreme Leader."
And so what does Kim see? He sees Trump's poor skills at effectively applying pressure. He sees China feeling more cocky and less sensitive to U.S. demands to push him along.
The fear among many national security experts now is that Trump will give away the store for the appearance of having brought peace to the Korean Peninsula. After all, Kim plays poker, too.