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NATO needs to adapt to remain credible, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said Friday, while also affirming US President Donald Trump's commitment to the military alliance for international allies.

Speaking at the the Munich Security Conference, Mattis said that NATO members could "no longer deny the reality" of international terrorism and other geopolitical risks and had to become "unified by these growing threats to our democracies."

The statements echoed similar comments he made during a meeting of NATO defence ministers earlier this week in Brussels.

Mattis is part of a US delegation that includes Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. The trio is among 30 heads of state and government and 80 foreign and defence ministers attending the talks in the Bavarian capital.

Trump's former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, had been due to attend but resigned earlier this week due to revelations that he misled Pence regarding a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador about sanctions. A successor has not yet been chosen.

Trump caused serious concern among NATO allies during his presidential campaign when he referred to the military alliance as "obsolete."

Though his team has since reaffirmed the US' commitment to NATO, there is a deep sense of unease among allies, especially in light of questions about the new administration's relations to Russia.

At a meeting of defence ministers on Wednesday, Mattis delivered an ultimatum to NATO member states, saying they should up their defence spending or risk Washington reducing its own contribution. The US is the biggest contributor to NATO.

Earlier this week, the White House said that Trump expected Russia to "return Crimea" to Ukraine, marking a major departure from his previously conciliatory stance towards the Kremlin. Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia in early 2014.

"Never before have there been so many foreign policy question marks," said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador and the head of the conference, in reference to the Trump White House, the crises in Syria and Ukraine, as well as populist movements within Europe.

Pence is expected to outline the White House's foreign policy goals on Saturday and to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ischinger said he hoped the conference would assuage some of the current uncertainty.

Other leaders to attend the conference include: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov; UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg; and the presidents of Ukraine and Afghanistan.

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