Andrew Young is the embodiment of the motto “Think global, act local.” The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations speaks fluently about economic trends and geopolitics. But he was also the mayor of Atlanta for two terms, and he understands the importance of creating jobs and a tax base in a local community.
As America wobbles toward economic recovery and many of its cities continue to struggle, Young’s diverse experiences offer political leaders an interesting road map for stoking growth. During his mayoral tenure from 1982 to 1990, Young persuaded roughly 1,100 foreign companies, from Germany’s Lufthansa to Japan’s Mitsubishi, to locate employees and operations in the Atlanta area. He recalls giving his home number to potential international investors to make the partnership more personal. “We made Southern hospitality into a marketing strategy,” Young, 82, tells Fortune.
Mayors all over the country are still taking that page from Young’s playbook. Some 83% of city leaders surveyed a few years ago by the National League of Cities say that attracting foreign investment and expanding trade opportunities were integral to future economic success. Nashville, for example, says that foreign direct investment sustains 83,000 jobs within its area and provides $10.2 billion to the economy annually.
Young applauds cities’ efforts, but he also worries that there is no comprehensive federal vision to make the socioeconomic climate stable for investment. As a result, he says, corporations are parking trillions of dollars in tax havens around the world instead of investing that money in projects and programs that could be used to strengthen the global economy. The biggest downside, Young adds, is that political and economic uncertainty in America is hurting the country’s ability to attract top talent and grow its own. “The environment is so insecure and unstable right now that people are afraid to invest in the future,” he says.
Young is the first to admit that he’s unabashedly in favor of partnering with business, a philosophy that may rankle some city leaders. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on a pro-consumer agenda that suggests he may not be as open to such alliances as his predecessor, Mike Bloomberg. And last summer the Washington, D.C., city council passed a “living-wage bill” aimed at getting Wal-Mart to increase its pay. (Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the measure.)
Ultimately Young believes that America’s success depends on cities continually reinventing themselves, a skill they can learn from businesses. (Remember when Apple was just a computer maker?) Take Detroit, which struggles to get past its image as a hardscrabble, one-industry town. Young says he sees something altogether different: a city with an enviable waterfront ripe for development — “I wish we had a waterfront like that in Atlanta,” he muses — and, crucially, a bridge connecting it to Canada, a major cross-border trading partner. Even when he’s thinking about a locality other than his own, Young thinks global.
This story is from the April 7, 2014 issue of Fortune.