Copenhagen. -- The serious question Danes have about the American campaign is whether it really signals the re-awakening of American isolationism.
They want to know where each candidate stands on keeping the United States in NATO and U.S. troops in Europe. The motive is their concern for the long-term implications of Germany's unification.
For all of the smaller NATO countries in or near Central Europe, NATO's main function now is to keep the United States in Europe both to balance Germany's power and to keep Germany integrated in the larger Western community.
This concern about Germany is shared in Britain and France, but with different results.
The French invariably take a pessimistic view of the future and are convinced that the United States will sooner or later abandon Europe. Paris, therefore, presses for European Community political integration (which in the past it resisted, in the name of Charles de Gaulle's multinational ''Europe des patries'').
France tries to bind Germany to itself by means of cabinet-level governmental cooperation and creation of integrated military units, meant to become the foundation for a new European army.
The British find this Franco-German collaboration even more alarming than the rise of German power alone, and try to obstruct it. They fear that Franco-German political cooperation and planning for a European army could accelerate U.S. withdrawal from Europe.
London's precaution is to do its best to keep up its trans-Atlantic ties and faithfully support U.S. policies. The British fear that Britain might one day once again find itself Europe's outsider and in need of a North American friend.
In this respect the British may be accused of even greater pessimism than the French, and of themselves promoting what they fear. The French at least invented the European Community as a way to prevent their worst fears from being realized. Britain ++ opposed it as long as possible, and is today its obstructionist member.
None of this does anyone any good in dealing with either the German problem or the actual and foreseeable crises in Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union.
The small NATO countries have no choice but to live with Germany. This means the Danes, Dutch and Belgians, as well as the Central Europeans who want to join NATO and also fear German power, notably the Poles and Czechoslovaks.
And that only begins the list: The latest is Russia itself.
Survival alongside larger and historically expansionist nations, in the neighborhood of others of the same kind, is the permanent problem faced by states like Denmark.
The Danes ruled Norway until they put themselves on the wrong side of the Napoleonic wars. They lost the southern portion of the Jutland peninsula to Germany, after two 19th Century wars. They got Danish North Schleswig back from Germany only in 1920. And Denmark was invaded by Germany in 1940 and occupied for five years.
For Danes, the past 50 years of American presence on the European continent have been not only a protection from Soviet Russia but a guarantee of their national integrity. They do not fear Germany if the United States is in Europe.
While they have often criticized American policies (in Vietnam, Central America, etc.), they feel in no way threatened by the United States, least of all culturally (unlike France and other Latin European countries).
The Danes are part of the same North European Protestant civilization from which the United States was formed, and they feel at home with American popular culture -- being very modest about their own.
The United States in this century has inherited the ancient policy of Britain with respect to Europe, which is to prevent Europe's domination by any single power. This brought the U.S. into both the two world wars, and caused it to sponsor NATO.
In the beginning NATO was meant to contain German as well as Soviet power. It has done both ever since with great success. The United States has profited from this quite as much as the Europeans.
Much nonsense has been spoken in the primaries thus far by candidates who fail to grasp that NATO has secured a primary American interest for the past 43 years: which is that Europe remains at peace, ruled by principles of cooperation rather than by rivalry and fear.
Abandon that, and the United States will have repudiated the bloodiest lesson of modern history.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.