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GOP Senate may have limited foreign policy impact

ISIS fighter, North American ISIS fighter, Islamic State
Reuters

With Republicans now in control of the Senate, expect to hear a tougher, more hawkish tone when it comes to foreign policy issues.

But with many of those issues overshadowed by wider global economic and political forces, the impact of any shifts in policy will likely be few and far between.

Not that voters are happy with the status quo. When asked last month if they approve of the White House's handling of foreign policy, fewer than a third had a favorable response in a Wall Street Journal NBC News poll. That was down from more than half of respondents two years ago.

For many voters, the most important issues facing the U.S. from abroad are the spread of territory controlled by ISIS militants and the Ebola virus. Republican control of the Senate won't stop those threats, but they could complicate the White House's efforts to contain them.

Here are four key foreign policy issues that will be among the most contentious;

Islamic State

The GOP Senate victory will shift control of key committees that could throw up roadblocks to White House policies. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations, will likely assume the chairmanship. And Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., will likely trade his ranking status to assume control of the Armed Services Committee

Inhofe has criticized President Barack Obama for his handling of the civil war in Syria and the ongoing response to the spread of the forces of the Islamic State group in the region.

"The president's inaction over the last three years has allowed the rapid growth of ISIS, potentially the greatest terrorist threat to American citizens," Inhofe said in response to the president's nationally televised address in September on his plans for destroying the group.

Corker has been equally critical of the president's military response. He will likely join with other GOP Senate leaders in calling for congressional authorization of expanded military operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The White House has insisted it has all the authority it needs from previous votes on sending U.S. troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

China

Further abroad, the most immediate chance for newly energized Senate Republicans to weigh in on U.S. relations with China will come when Obama travels to Beijing next week to talk with Chinese leaders about a long list of festering disputes with the world's second-largest economy.

Obama's reception is likely to be chilly. On Wednesday, the state-run Global Times delivered a broadside, noting that the GOP Senate victory "further crippled" the lame-duck president.

"Obama always utters 'Yes, we can,' which led to the high expectations people had for him," the editorial said. "But he has done an insipid job, offering nearly nothing to his supporters. US society has grown tired of his banality."

Obama's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping will include a discussion of widening U.S. concerns about cyberspying by China's government and military and reports of attacks on U.S. technology companies. China has rejected the claims as unfounded.

Read MoreChina targets Apple's iCloud with hacking attack: Report

In the past, the White House has also criticized China for its human rights record and issued warnings about increasingly assertive naval actions in disputed waters of the East and South China Seas.

Obama's trip is expected to talks with other with Asian leaders and an informal meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Negotiations with Asian countries on moving stalled trade talks forward have been hampered by congressional foot-dragging on granting the White House a freer hand.

Part of that opposition has come from Democrats whose labor union supporters oppose those trade deals, according to Alastair Newton, a political analyst at Nomura International.

"The optimistic view is that trade is one area where Mr. Obama and the Republicans should be able to find common ground," he said in a note Wednesday.

But even if approved, any new trade deals would be offset by the ongoing slowdown of Asian and European economies.

Iran

With a deadline looming this month in the latest round of talks with Iran over its nuclear program, the tone of the new Senate majority's approach to ongoing talks will likely turn more hawkish.

But it remains to be seen how the leadership shift will affect the outcome. Iran's negotiating position has been much more heavily impacted by ongoing economic sanctions that have been made all the more painful by the recent slide in the price of oil, which has funded generous consumer subsidies.

Rising domestic unemployment and inflation, along with falling gross domestic product, will continue to exert more pressure on Tehran than any new policy statements from Republicans. But a hawkish GOP-controlled Senate could also demand stricter terms to any eventual nuclear weapons deal.

Russia

Moscow is expecting little change in Washington's policy on trade and economic sanctions imposed following Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. Beginning in March, the U.S. imposed a series of increasingly tighter restrictions on individuals close to Putin. Those were followed by a wider set of moves, including bank assets freezes, which were joined by the EU, Japan and Australia.

If anything, Moscow expects those sanctions to get tougher. On Wednesday, state-run TASS news agency quoted several Russian analysts as warning that the Senate shift would prolong the standoff.

"The Republicans' victory in the US congressional mid-terms is evidence the Cold War, which the United States is imposing on Russia, is bound to last," Russian Academy of Sciences member Sergey Rogov told TASS. "By getting back to it we have turned 30 years younger in the negative sense."